What Kind of Union Will We Be?

Posted on: 
February 17, 2013

The piece below was written by Gregory Rosenthal, Stony Brook GSEU member and Department Mobilizer for the History Department. It is both an informative piece about the history of graduate student labor unionism in the United States, as well as a thought-provoking look at what unionism means in the United States today:

The first labor unions in New York City organized in the 1830s. That was during an era we call the industrial revolution or market revolution. It was a time of great transformation in American society. Our economy seemingly transformed overnight from an artisanal model to an industrial one—from an economy of small shops with skilled masters, journeymen, and young apprentices to a new mode of production based upon the exploitation of a permanent wage-working class by a separate (and much smaller) ruling class.

An early labor struggle in New York City involved the establishment of New York University (NYU). Members of the GSEU, a union of graduate student employees, might take note of this struggle as it highlights intersections between two campaigns that we are still fighting for: free education and free labor.

NYU was founded as a free university in 1831. Or at least that was the plan. But the university's finances were in bad shape in the early 1830s. The founders had planned to build a huge, beautiful campus building for the university right at the corner of Washington Square Park. But they did not have the money—or so they claimed—to hire members of the recently organized Stonecutters' Guild. So instead of unionized workers, they contracted the job out to convicts at New York's most notorious prison, Sing Sing. Convict labor was legal in New York State at the time. Private contractors, like NYU, could apparently “hire” convicts from area prisons to engage in forced labor. This situation put trade unions, like the Stonecutters' Guild, between a rock and a hard place. (Pun intended!)

How did the Stonecutters respond? They petitioned the state to curtail the use of prison labor. But their pleas fell on deaf ears. Eventually, they realized that they had to take their fight to the streets—or in this case, to Washington Square. After work each day, the stonecutters from across the city gathered at the NYU construction site to demonstrate. They carried their stonecutting tools with them and caused quite a scene. In response to the demonstrations, the state called out a regiment of the National Guard to keep an eye on the stonecutters. Imagine the sight of a military regiment camped out in Washington Square Park while stonecutters armed with tools demonstrated nearby.

Switching tactics, the stonecutters began to “visit” the homes of wealthy capitalists involved in the NYU project. On one occasion, they marched to the home of the man who had contracted the labor from Sing Sing and they pummeled his house with rocks. There were clashes between the stonecutters and the military. The scene around Washington Square Park was a scene of class warfare.

The stonecutters were ultimately unsuccessful. New York University was built upon the blood, sweat, and tears of unpaid prison labor. (But don't tell that to prospective students!) Despite the setback, the labor movement in New York City continued to grow throughout the nineteenth century. Conflicts like the one at Washington Square Park only become more common.

Fast-forward to 1873: the great “Panic of 1873.” This was the beginning of the worst economic depression in U.S. history (prior to 1929); indeed, some historians have claimed that this economic depression was global in scope, that it lasted for over twenty years, and that tens of millions died from starvation worldwide. In 1874, a crowd of ten thousand unemployed New Yorkers assembled at Tompkins Square Park for a rally and march to call on the city to establish public works projects for the unemployed. But unbeknownst to the demonstrators, the city had suddenly and quietly revoked their permit the night before. The police arrived on horseback and began to disperse the crowd. Panic ensued.

A young Samuel Gompers was at Tompkins Square that day. He later wrote about the incident:

“[A] group of workers marched into the park from Avenue A. They carried a banner bearing the words 'TENTH WARD UNION LABOR.' Just after they entered the park the police sergeant led an attack on them. He was followed by police mounted and on foot with drawn night-sticks. Without a word of warning they swept down the defenseless workers, striking down the standard-bearer and using their clubs right and left indiscriminately on the heads of all they could reach. Shortly afterwards the mounted police charged the crowd on Eighth Street, riding them down and attacking men, women and children without discrimination. It was an orgy of brutality.”

Gompers could have responded to the incident by doubling-down on his own commitments to labor militancy. But he wasn't committed to militancy; nor was he committed to radicalism. As the U.S. labor movement progressed in the late nineteenth century into the early twentieth century and millions of American workers aligned themselves with the goals of socialism, communism, and/or anarchism, Gompers turned in a completely different direction. He founded the American Federation of Labor in 1886 and pursued policies that historians have called “business unionism”: running a union like a business. There was no place for bottom-up, collective, democratic rank-and-file leadership in Gompers' vision. His approach, the “business unionism” approach, left a tremendous, perhaps even oppressive, legacy on American labor history. It is a truism that “business unionism” prevails in contemporary labor organizing. It is much more common for workers' dues to go towards lobbying politicians in the hidden corridors of state and federal power—and in the wake of Citizen's United to even go towards funding politicians' political campaigns—than be held as funds for striking mothers and fathers risking life and limb on the picket line. Indeed, the whole idea of the union, and what our union dues are for, has changed tremendously over time.

It is up to us to decide what kind of union we will be. We must be a union for the twenty-first century. But what does this mean? We might ask ourselves the following questions: when is business unionism most appropriate, and when is it more appropriate to hit the streets? Is it possible to be both radical and conservative? How do we know when the right time to push our advantage is at hand, and when to retreat? Who exactly do we stand in solidarity with, and how do we express our solidarity?

Union membership is at an all-time low in the United States. I argue that it has a lot to do with the changing character of unionism over American history. Our union brothers and sisters of the nineteenth century took incredible risks—some even died—as they struggled for basic human rights. They strived for what then may have seemed like unthinkably utopian goals, and even today some of their goals still appear utopian. I imagine that it was a frightening time to be a worker. But I imagine it was also an inspiring time. We would do well to be a bit inspired once again.


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