by Lindsay Beyerstein
How our blog got its name
Sidney Hillman was a powerful national figure during the Great Depression, a key supporter of the New Deal, and a close ally of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
When the rumor spread that President Roosevelt ordered his party leaders to “clear it with Sidney” before announcing Harry S. Truman as his 1944 running mate, conservative critics turned on the phrase, trumpeting it as proof that the president was under the thumb of “Big Labor.”
Over the years, the phrase lost its sting and became a testament to Hillman's influence.
It's hard to imagine a labor leader wielding that kind clout today, but we like the idea—and we hope Sidney would give thumbs up to our blog.
Clear It With Sidney
In a new article in the American Prospect, Hillman judge Harold Meyerson asks what will happen to America if organized labor continues its long slide into oblivion:
Where are unions in the new economy? Can a union do anything for a temp? A part-timer? A software writer? A barista? Will anyone under 30—will anyone over 30—even notice if unions cease to be?
Perhaps not. But everyone will notice the consequences. Absent a substantial union movement, the American middle class will shrink. Absent a substantial union movement, the concentration of wealth will increase. Absent a substantial union movement, the corporate domination of government will grow.
If labor dies, Americans can look forward to falling wages, rising inequality, and permanent Republican majorities. The only way to stave off this dire outcome, Meyerson argues, is for the rest of the liberal movement to rally behind organized labor in its hour of need.
[Photo credit: Peoplesworld, Creative Commons.]
- Sarah Jaffe of AlterNet calls out five supposedly liberal pundits for bashing the striking Chicago teachers.
- Bangladeshi labor organizer Aminul Islam disappeared on April 4, after an extended campaign of police harassment. His tortured body was found a few days later. Many believe Islam was murdered for trying to organize workers at local Tommy Hilfiger and American Eagle factories. Four months later a lead surfaced: On the day he disappeared, a man with suspected intelligence ties showed up and asked Islam to officiate his wedding. Islam left with him in a rickshaw and was never seen again.
- President Asif Ali Zardari has ordered an investigation into a fire that killed 258 garment workers in the Pakistani capital of Karachi, Businessweek reports. Labor activists have been pushing for an investigation and compensation for the families of the victims.
- About 100 warehouse workers from the Inland Empire set out on a 50-mile "Wal-March" to protest wages and working conditions at Wal-Mart warehouses, Thursday.
[Photo credit: Wander Mule, Creative Commons.]
The unions uprising! takin to the streets!
The workers are United so the Mayor's got beef!
Rahm's a fake pretender with a corporate agenda
Neo Liberal Offender, of course you offend us!
This aint about money! That’s far from the truth,
they want better work conditions to teach the youth.
The labor movement has a rich musical heritage. Songs raise spirits on the picket lines and recall the stories of struggles past. This week, Rebel Diaz took up the tradition of Joe Hill, Woodie Guthrie, and Phil Ochs with his new song, "Chicago Teacher." Listen here.
Striking teachers and school officials are making progress at the bargaining table, the Chicago Sun Times reports. The two sides are said to be coming closer to an agreement on the contentious issue of teacher evaluations. If all goes well, students could be back at school by Friday:
After a long day of talks that ended around 11:30 p.m., Lewis said the system’s offer on teacher evaluations, a key stumbling block, had improved to the point that “I’m smiling. I’m very happy.’’
Although she was not ready to check it off her list, “it’s a lot better,’’ Lewis said.
Earlier, Chicago Public School officials Wednesday released what one expert called a “pretty generous concession” to the union on teacher evaluations.
Teachers and parents across country are watching the Chicago dispute as a bellwether for the national debate over teacher evaluations and standardized testing.
[Photo credit: People's World, Creative Commons.]
Some of the best reporting and commentary on the Chicago teachers strike:
- "Why I'm Striking," by Teacher X, a Chicago public school teacher, who notes the irony of saying that it's just fine for kids to lose 18-25 days out of every school year for unproven standardized testing, but not a few days for a strike.
- Brian Jones salutes the striking teachers in the New York Times' "Room for Debate" section.
- Corey Robin on "Liberals Who Hate Teachers Unions" in Jacobin Magazine.
- "Chicago Teachers Push Back Against Neo-Liberal Education Reform," by Matthew Cunningham-Cook in The Nation.
- Dana Goldstein on the history of teachers unions as a women-led labor movement.
- Mayor Rahm Emanuel was forced to officially deny Nickleback fandom after a 10th grade math teacher, Mike Konkoleski, walked the picket line with a sign alleging "Rahm Emanuel Likes Nickleback."
Erich Schwartzel and Julia Rendleman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette have won the September Sidney Award for “Fouled Waters,” a 3-month investigation into a mysterious blight on the water supply of a small Pennsylvania town surrounded by natural gas wells.
Read my Backstory interview with Erich and Julia about their prize-winning piece.
The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century, a new book by Peter Dreier, names Sidney Hillman as one of the leading lights of the social justice movement. I spoke to Dreier about the book and Hillman's legacy.
The book is a kind of Who's Who of social justice in America. Dreier honors three types of luminaries: organizers and activists, politicians, and intellectuals. Hillman's achievements span all three categories. He was a dazzlingly successful organizer of immigrant garment workers; he went on to become trusted adviser to Franklin Roosevelt and an architect of the New Deal; and he was an intellectual founder of social unionism.
Social unionism is the idea that a union should fight for more than higher pay and better working conditions. Hillman believed that the union should serve as a center of social, intellectual, and family life. This model was very appealing to immigrant workers who were pleased to find an American institution that would welcome them with open arms and teach them how to thrive in a new country. Hillman's later support of the welfare state was a natural extension of this community-oriented approach to politics.
Dreier attributes Hillman's success as an organizer partly to his eclectic background. He was a Chicago garment worker who came to the U.S. from Lithuania as a young man after serving time in prison for revolutionary politicking in Russia. He was also an intellectual who had studied to be a rabbi as a young man. Even before coming to the U.S., he pored over the social thought of Marx, Darwin, and Mill.
"Hillman was an empathetic member of the working class," Dreier said, "He understood that ordinary people could do extraordinary things."
“He wasn't a great public speaker, but he was persistent and clever, and he knew how to find other people with talent,” Dreier added.
Hillman rose to prominence during the Hart, Schaffner, and Marx strike of 1910. Tens of thousands of Chicago garment workers, led mostly by women, walked off the job. While many male garment workers laughed at the women, Hillman joined their cause. In 1914, at the age of 27, he became the first president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, a post he held until his death in 1946.
Chicago was a hotbed of social protest. Hillman forged friendships and allegiance with progressive leaders including Clarence Darrow, Jane Addams, Frances Perkins, and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt (all listed among the 100 Greatest Americans).
As an adviser to FDR, Hillman helped shape the New Deal and the nascent welfare state. He pushed for public works, unemployment insurance, and a more equitable distribution of wealth.
Sidney Hillman’s career shows how the radical ideas of one generation become the commonsense ideas of the next.
[Photo: Sidney Hillman (left) and David Dubinsky of the ILGWU, Kheel Center @Cornell University, Creative Commons.]
A handful of New York City workers went head-to-head with the Hot & Crusty bakery and won, the Village Voice reports:
In one of the most remarkable underdog stories in recent labor history, 23 low-wage restaurant workers at a Hot and Crusty Bakery location on the Upper East Side have won a surprising victory.
The bakery's owners closed it August 31 after the workers successfully formed a union, but the workers fought back, briefly taking over the bakery on its last day and maintaining a 24-hour picket and street cafe through the following week.
Saturday, it was announced that new owners had taken over the bakery, and had signed binding promises to reopen the bakery within 15 days, rehire its workers, recognize their union, and institute a hiring hall, giving the workers control over the hire of new employees.
Hot & Crusty closed down the shop at 63rd and 2nd Ave in Manhattan after a super-majority of its 23 employees voted to unionize.
The victory is all the more remarkable because most of the Hot & Crusty workers are undocumented. The workers prevailed despite management threats to use their immigration status against them.
No one was expecting a tiny handful of mostly undocumented workers to win such concessions from a powerful ownership team led by Mark Samson, a managing partner at the private equity firm Praesidian Capital. Workers say management used their immigration status to threaten them, and spent more than $500,000 on a union-busting consultant and lawyers.
"It's historic. It's pretty much unprecedented," said Nastaran Mohit, an organizer at the Laundry Workers Center, which helped train and support the bakery workers. "The depth of support really helped, but the other thing that made the difference was the willingness of the workers to escalate."
The Laundry Workers Center was instrumental in bringing about the original vote to unionize. The bakery workers also had the support of allies including SEIU 32BJ, student groups, and Occupy Wall Street.
[Photo credit: SashaMD, Creative Commons.]
- Josh Eidelson of Working In These Times has the latest on the Palermo's Pizza labor dispute.
- Hillman judge Harold Meyerson compiles a history of American labor in photos for the American Prospect.
- The Radio Rookies, young reporters at WNYC, examine the effects of stop-and-frisk in the Bronx. They really put NYPD chief Ray Kelly on the spot in a one-on-one interview.
- In honor of Labor Day, ProPublica compiled a great set of stories on the dismal state of occupational health and safety in the United States. [Submitted by reader EF]
Macy's longest-serving employee is retiring after 73 years of hard work and activism:
Can you imagine working in the days when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in the White House and the biggest movie at the box-office was The Wizard of Oz?
Rose Syracuse, can do you one better, because she was actually living those moments. The 92-year old has been working for a whopping 73 years at the Macy's Herald Square flagship store in New York City. Rose, also a member of RWDSU Local 1-S, is now announcing her retirement. [UFCW blog]
Rose was a founding member of Local 1-S, and she fought to unionize her workplace:
Speaking with RWDSU, Rose pointed out that "the union fights for you. They really help you. Otherwise how could you do it all by yourself? Nobody would listen to you." We couldn't agree more. Rose's statement reminds us that the point of a union has not changed from 73 years ago: when sticking together, we have a voice that will be listened to.
[Photo credit: iJammin, Creative Commons.]