Joshua B. Freeman Q and A About New York's Working Class





[Following is the third and final set of answers from Joshua B. Freeman, a historian and the author of “Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II.” This week, he has responded to readers’ questions about the history of the city’s unions, labor politics and changing work force.]

To what extent was the so-called “hard hat” reaction to Vietnam antiwar protesters spontaneous and to what extent was it the product of a deal worked out between Nixon administration operatives and the leadership of the Teamsters and construction trades unions?

— Posted by LawrenceGulotta


Answer:

The “hard hat” attack on antiwar demonstrators in Lower Manhattan, on May 8, 1970, was not strictly spontaneous; reporters and the police had been tipped off the night before that something was going to happen. Some observers at the time suspected that the administration of President Richard M. Nixon administration had a hand in initiating the violence, but historians have not found evidence of a White House role.

However, Mr. Nixon and his aides were quick to see the benefit of the anti-antiwar actions at a time when they were feeling beleaguered by protests against the United States invasion of Cambodia. After the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York sponsored a huge pro-war demonstration on May 20, Mr. Nixon invited leaders of the group to the White House, where its president, Peter J. Brennan, gave Mr. Nixon a hard hat embossed with the presidential seal. Mr. Nixon later appointed Mr. Brennan secretary of labor, at least in part because of his role in promoting pro-war labor marches.
Question:

A few years ago, the state A.F.L.-C.I.O. made a well-publicized move toward supporting the creation of affordable housing, but the effort soon fizzled. What would it take to get the labor institution involved in broad working-class social issues like housing again?

— Posted by Tom from the Bx


Answer:

The head of the New York State A.F.L.-C.I.O., Denis M. Hughes, has tried to push organized labor to deal with broad social issues like housing, but there have been many obstacles. While some labor leaders have an expansive notion of the role of their organizations, believing that they should act as advocates for working people on a wide range of issues, others have a narrower conception, focusing on collective bargaining and work-related problems their members face. Also, many unionists feel on the defensive, as the proportion of the work force that carries a union card has fallen and the movement has come under attack from business and conservatives.

There are some signs of increasing labor interest in broad social issues. The Working Families Party, which gets much of its support from organized labor, has made its top priorities promoting “green jobs” and a proposed New York City law requiring that all employers, whether unionized or not, offer employees sick days. Nationally, many unions have made health care reform their foremost political concern, and some have injected themselves into the debates over banking regulation, the housing foreclosure crisis, and the war in Iraq (which many unions have opposed).

History has shown that labor movement promotion of a broad social agenda and its pursuit of organizing and collective bargaining gains reinforce each other, even though they may place conflicting demands on resources. The Knights of Labor in the 1880s and the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s experienced enormous growth when they aligned themselves with efforts at fundamental social change. Most working people realize that their problems cannot be solved at the workplace alone.
Question:

New York City trade unions had been successful in creating numerous co-operative multifamily housing complexes, including Co-op City. Thereafter, it seems that union investment in creating affordable housing declined or disappeared entirely.

What drove the unions out of creating large-scale affordable co-op and rental multifamily housing complexes in New York City?

— Posted by LawrenceGulotta


Answer:

The changing economics of housing in the late 1960s and early 1970s ended the remarkable experiment of New York labor in sponsoring affordable housing, largely in the form of nonprofit cooperatives.

Rising construction, material and energy costs drove the cost of building and operating Co-op City, which opened in 1968, far beyond what its labor sponsors had anticipated, leading to a huge jump in the maintenance fees its residents had to pay and igniting the largest rent strike in United States history.

The United Housing Foundation, a labor-affiliated group which sponsored many of the cooperative projects, including Co-op City, began building another huge project, Twin Pines Village, in Canarsie, Brooklyn, but in 1972, when it realized that the carrying costs of the completed project would make it unaffordable to many union members, it sold the project to the Starrett Corporation, which completed it as Starrett City.

Very few union-sponsored housing projects have been built since. In 2007, when the Starrett Corporation put Starrett City on the market, the New York City Central Labor Council joined a group that tried, unsuccessfully, to buy it to ensure that it would remain affordable to its tenants.
Question:

Prof. David Witwer has put the Mafia labor racketeers Augie Pisano and George Scalise onto the map of New York City’s labor history. He has made a good beginning. Where can we find researchers and students to further pursue and document this aspect of the city’s labor union history, particularly as regards the B.S.E.I.U.? Or is this too hot to handle?

— Posted by g. albertz


Answer:

Scholars are increasingly paying attention to the history of corruption in the labor movement. David Witwer, in his recent “ Shadow of the Racketeer: Scandal in Organized Labor” (University of Illinois Press), addresses corruption during the 1930s in the Building Service Employees International Union (predecessor of the Service Employees International Union) and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Another recent publication, James T. Fisher’s “On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York” (Cornell University Press) looks at corruption on the New York-New Jersey waterfront and the culture that nurtured it.

“Corruption and Racketeering in the New York City Construction Industry” (New York University Press) is a fascinating 1990 report from a New York State task force on organized crime.

The Queens College library has a small collection of documents related to the fight against corruption in the Building Service Employees in New York City...


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