From Garment Workers to Gig Workers: Organized Labor in NYC

May 1, 2019

Professor Joshua Freeman and other CUNY labor scholars helped shape a "long overdue" exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.

rally in the street

ILGWU President David Dubinsky and Liberal Party leader Alex Rose rally voters for LBJ, RFK, and Hubert Humphrey, Seventh Avenue. Photo by Burton Berinsky, 1964. Courtesy Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives, Cornell University.

By Beth Harpaz
Editor of SUM

Nearly 25 percent of New York’s workforce is unionized, compared to 11 percent nationwide. That makes New York “the best-organized city in the United States,” according to Distinguished Professor Joshua B. Freeman (GC/Queens/CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies; History/Labor Studies).
The Museum of the City of New York has just opened an exhibition on the history of labor in New York called "City of Workers, City of Struggle: How Labor Movements Changed New York." Freeman headed the show’s academic advisory committee. He also edited and contributed to an accompanying book of essays that includes chapters by other CUNY scholars.
Freeman says it’s significant that the book and exhibition title use the term “labor movements” in plural form. “New York has been a place with an incredibly rich but complicated labor history,” he said in an interview. This survey of the “multiplicity and the depths of workers’ struggles in New York,” from the colonial era to the 21st century is, he added, “long overdue.”

Professor Joshua Freeman headed the academic advisory committee of the Museum of the City of New York's new exhibition, "City of Workers, City of Struggle: How Labor Movements Changed New York."

Among the exhibition’s most striking displays is a 1964 photo of a garment workers’ rally on Seventh Avenue. The political power of unions in that era is made plain by the attendance of Robert F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. The show also documents the impact of strikes and boycotts, including a 1909 garment workers’ “uprising” that led to better pay and shorter hours, and walkouts by transit workers and teachers that paralyzed and divided the city in the 1960s. 

The show starts with a look at workers in the city’s colonial era, when the economy depended in part on unpaid labor by enslaved Africans, indentured servants, and apprentices. In the 19th century, guilds of skilled craftsmen gave way to larger movements representing laborers and factory workers. These new unions — like the American Federation of Labor, co-founded by cigar maker Samuel Gompers — fought for safe working conditions and an eight-hour day, but they often excluded immigrants, people of color, and women. Those groups, in turn, sometimes formed their own organizations.

The 20th century saw union representation shift, along with the economy, from the manufacturing sector to service, government, and professional workers like teachers and nurses. And in the 21st century, there are new challenges related to workers in the tech and gig economies.

But Freeman says the labor movement’s contributions remain palpable. “The way in which workers came to shape the city, their activism, their efforts to assert their collective needs and desires, help made New York what it is today,” Freeman said. “In New York, you can be a doorman or a building maintenance worker and have a good life. Why? Because you belong to a union. There’s nothing inherent about that job that means you’re going to be well paid, that you’re going to have health insurance, that your kids are going to be able to go to college. That’s what (organized) labor has meant. That’s what it continues to do.”

In addition to editing the City of Workers book, Freeman contributed a chapter about the Congress of Industrial Organizations and wrote the conclusion. Other CUNY contributors include Graduate Center Ph.D. candidate Johnathan Thayer (Queens College, Library and Information Studies), writing about maritime workers; Distinguished Professor Ruth Milkman (GC/CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies; Sociology/Labor Studies), on the new “alt-labor” movement; Joshua Brown (GC adjunct professor and former executive director of the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning), on visual representations of 19th century workers; Distinguished Lecturer William Herbert (Hunter College), on public workers; and professors Margaret Chin (GC/Hunter; Sociology) and Kenneth Guest (Baruch, Anthropology) on the restaurant and garment industries in Chinatown.

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.