Things We Had When New York Was A Union Town
Dr Mark Naison
With collective bargaining rights having just been eliminated in Wisconsin by legislative fiat, and with more states poised to do the same; with union teachers everywhere being made scapegoats for the nation’s educational problems; and with the most powerful business interests in the nation funding movements to privatize government services and decertify public employee unions, I thought it might be useful to look back at a time in New York City’s history when unions had far more power than they have today.
When New York City emerged from World War II, the most dynamic sectors of its economy- garment, electronics, transportation, construction, and food processing- were all heavily unionized. These union gains in the private sector were soon followed by the acquisition of collective bargaining rights by teachers, employees of state and city government and workers in health care.
Given what is being said about unions by elected officials and the media, one might expect that time in New York history- the 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s- to be one of educational and cultural stagnation. One would expect that New York City today is a much more dynamic and democratic city than it was during a time when more than half the city’s work force was unionized.
But when you do some historical research and ask yourself the question, “Does New York City have better schools, public services and cultural and recreational opportunities for its poor and working class citizens than it did 50 years ago” the answer you come up with is a resounding “NO”.
I have spent the last nine years doing oral histories with Bronx residents through a project I lead called the Bronx African American History Project, and to a person, the people I interviewed feel that young people growing up in the Bronx had better opportunities in the 50’s and the 60’s than young people growing up there today. As Josh Freeman points out in his wonderful book
Working Class New York, many of the programs that my interviewees talked about that made their lives better were fought for by the city’s labor movement.
Here is a list of just a few of the programs which New York City unions fought for that are no longer with us today. I will leave it to you to decide whether we are better off without them.
1. Supervised recreation programs in every public elementary school in the city from 3-5 PM and 7-9 PM, which included sports, arts and crafts and music. These programs were free and open any young person who walked through the door.
2. First rate music programs in every public junior high school in the city featuring free instruction for students in bands, orchestras and music classes. Students in those classes could take home musical instruments to practice. Among the beneficiaries of these school music programs were some of the greats of Latin music in NYC, including Willie Colon, Eddie and Charlie Palmieri, Ray Barretto, and Bobby Sanabria.
3. Recreation supervisors, as well as cleaners, in every public park in the city, including neighborhood vest pocket parks, who organized games and leagues and prevented fights. One of the greatest of these “parkies” Hilton White, organized a community basketball program that sent scores of Bronx youth to college on basketball scholarships including 3 who played on the 1966 Texas Western team which won the NCAA championship.
4. A public housing program that constructed tens of thousands of units of low and moderate income housing throughout the city and staffed these with housing police, ground crews and recreation staffs to make sure the projects were safe, clean and well policed.
5. Free tuition at the city university, at the community college, college and graduate levels, for all students who met the admissions standards.
6. Parks department policies which made sure that parks in the outer boroughs were kept as clean and environmentally sound as Central Park or parks in wealthy neighborhoods.
7. Free admission at all the city's major zoos and museums.
These policies, all of which were eliminated during the fiscal crisis of the 1970's, when a banker dominated Emergency Financial Control Board was put in charge of city finances, meant that children in poor and working class communities had access to recreational cultural and educational opportunities which are today only available to the children of the rich . These programs were not there because of the foresight and compassion of the city's business leadership. They were there because unions fought for them and demanded that elected officials they supported fund them.
This is not to say that unions are right in every dispute, or that they are immune from arrogance, greed and corruption. But it should give pause to those who think that our lives would be better in a union free environment.
Let me leave you with some numbers. In the early 1950's, when 35% of the American work force was unionized, the United States had the smallest wealth gap (between the top and bottom 20 percent of its population) of any advanced nation in the world. Now, when 11.9% of our workforce is unionized, we have the largest
Is this progress?
Let's think long and hard before we blame unions for the city's and the nation's economic problems