Labor pioneer Kate Mullany, an Irish immigrant who went on to found the Collar Laundry Union in Troy, NY, will be honored on May 14 and 15 by a new musical by Ruth Henry, “Don’t Iron While the Strike Is Hot.” The musical will be staged Bush Memorial Hall at Russell Sage College in Troy, and all proceeds will benefit the Kate Mullany National Historic Site.
For ticket information and advertising, see the American Labor Studies Center’s flyer.
I was born and raised in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York.
Do you have any union experience in your family or in your work experience?
My oldest brother is a sheet metal worker in a sheet metal worker’s union that is the only union experience I know. But, some members of my family, going back a few decades to their time in Grenada, were activists who understood the necessity to organize, the necessity for working people to have organizations of their own.
Where did you study and what?
I studied Marketing Management at the New York City College of Technology.
How did you get interested in history?
I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X when I was 12 years old. I understood from this book that there was more going on in the world, than just me and my little world, to say the least. It made me think. Malcolm X educated himself in many different things while in prison, which I thought was interesting. I never liked schooling or formal education, at least the way it’s currently set up here. I wanted to be like him, so I started reading and educating myself to history, philosophy, economics and politics.
Describe the labor history class you teach at WPC?
It’s a three-part class, and starts from colonial times to about 2005. I tell volunteers in the beginning of the class that they don’t have to worry about remembering the specific dates and names of the people, because they’ll miss the point. The purpose of the class is to look at the approach of how working people throughout history fought against the oppression of the government and the wealthy people it serves. The class looks at organizations like the IWW, Knights of Labor, Ancient Order of Hibernians, Southern Tenant Farmers Union and many others, and how they organized, what were their goals. The class also looks at how the wealthy reacted, how they used the government and its laws, as a tool to uphold their interests, and then destroy and malign these organizations. These organizations engaged in strategies and tactics some of which were successful and some unsuccessful – our point is to learn from what didn’t work and take what they did that was successful and engage in organizing to learn what it takes to change the underlying economic system to eliminate poverty.
What do you think is especially important about labor history?
Labor history, like all history, is a guide for action today. The media and education system is removing these historical lessons from textbooks, which we need to understand because the conditions for working people in the U.S and in many countries are getting worse yet in other countries are vastly improving. We need to teach that working people HAVE fought and won gains – that it IS possible. If we don’t know the history of what their struggles were about and what happened, working people and their organizations can become demoralized, or resort to experimenting and re-hashing the same mistakes over and over again, and working people just can’t afford to lose anymore. While Forbes list adds 200 more billionaires to their list in the last year so there are now 1,426 in the world with 442 in the US, the number of U.S. households living on $2 or less in income per person per day in a given month increased to 1.46 million in 2011, a 130% growth from 1996!
How does the work that you are doing contribute to building a better world for working people?
I think a better world for working people starts with leadership and organization OF the people to truly represent their interests. That leadership and organization has to work toward a goal of a better world for the majority of the people on the planet, not just for a handful of the wealthy. I’m a full-time volunteer organizer for an all-volunteer independent media organization called Women’s Press Collective. Over 90% of mainstream US media is owned by corporate conglomerates, and they promulgate information that can confuse, attack, degrade, and misrepresent the interests, goals, organizations, and movements of working people. Their media makes working people who are organizing look like the bad guys, like we’re the problem. There will be people who will believe the lies and sensational stories in the media and get confused and won’t fight. They are kept ignorant of those who are wining and bettering their conditions as the mainstream media will just not report on this news or bury it. There needs to be leadership and press organizations to break through that also. 90% of the media – including internet sites, TV, radio, publications – are now owned by six wealthy corporations and the government allows for this super-consolidated ownership to take place. I started organizing full-time as a volunteer, with WPC in 2010 because the brutal conditions of poverty must change, the media has a strong influence on our thinking whether we can break these chains of poverty and we need true leadership and organization to fight our way forward.
My family and I were in poverty like millions of working people. I saw what that does to people and I think we need to fundamentally change the root cause of poverty. I saw that one element of what it would take to change things is having a media that serves the interests of working people and their efforts to better their conditions as they organize production resources into the hands of working people. So every single day I’m out in the community, talking to people from all walks of life about the need for an independent press and finding people who will volunteer and support this effort. I organize the same way any serious organizer in history has done, face-to-face and arms length. I consider organizing my profession. Throughout history individuals decide to make a political commitment towards changing the conditions in their country, but individuals can’t do it alone so they join an organization. This is nothing new within struggles for working people.
I help teach our members of low-income workers, small business owners, cash-strapped associations and organizations with causes how to produce materials that can assist them in their daily lives – some have small businesses and need to design a business card, some need printed or designed materials for their cash strapped low-income schools. In other cases they are producing literature and publications they need to spread the word of their own fight to change working conditions for their group. It gives them a voice. I meet journalists, printers, photographers that are fed up with how they’re been de-professionalized, underpaid, and they hate working for corporate media and want a way to use their skills to aid the community. I also teach people how to organize and anyone can learn how to organize and build organization that serves the interests of working people.
How do you see the future for working people?
It all depends on what we do now and how we organize today. If working people decide to study history and learn from the winners, they can start to have power in the U.S. over their lives. This can lead to something to emulate for improvement of conditions for working people in other countries who also suffer form these problems.
Anything else that you want to add?
If anyone wants to volunteer to learn organizing, has a publication project that they want to start, or wants a copy of WPC’s magazine Collective Endeavor, you can reach me at Women’s Press Collective 718.222.0405.
I grew up in a neighborhood called Mt. Airy in Northwest Philadelphia. Mt. Airy residents like to pride themselves on being liberal and diverse, and we really were. We had neighbors who represented a wide range of socioeconomic levels, races, sexual orientations, and family structures.
Do you have any experience with labor unions…including your family…your work experience?
I actually don’t have any experience with labor unions. To be honest it took me longer than it should have to learn about labor unions – I think I first truly discovered their importance in a course I took on American Capitalism at NYU. Since I’ve become labor-conscious I’ve discovered that my mother was a member of DC 37 in New York City in the 1970s. But all my life my parents have worked as professional academics – non-unionized labor. I had some experience with community organizing, but nothing labor-centered. Most of my work experience was with non-profit community centers, small businesses, or professionals. My path to labor history really came through my college education and an interest in community and social organizing of other kinds.
What did you study in college…and where did you attend school?
I studied history and Spanish at New York University. The history major at NYU is structured to provide students with a fairly fractured knowledge of history, as you don’t pick a particular place or time or topic in history but instead are required to take a wide range of courses situated on different continents and in different time periods. I tried to focus on U.S. and Latin American social history, though I took a particularly exciting course on the French Revolution along the way.
How or why did you get interested in history?
When I think back on it I come up with a few distinct events that came together to inform my sense that history was the best subject there is:
The first is that I had a fantastic U.S. history teacher my senior year of high school. He used to have class members role play crucial moments in U.S. history. He would place students in a particular moment in the past, burden them with the knowledge of public opinion and the pros and cons of various decisions, and then ask them to argue for or against a certain course of action. (One I remember distinctly was Woodrow Wilson’s decision to enter into World War I. The U.S. had never been in the business of entering wars for moral purposes – why do it now?) I think this intense proximity with historical decision-makers – being forced to consider how the agency of historical decision-makers was influenced by external social, economic, and political factors– was what first made history really exciting for me. It wasn’t just any story – it was the story of real social actors, and it could be intensely relevant. I also enjoyed the science and art involved in crafting a historical argument out of evidence.
The second answer in my mind is wrapped up in my reading of George Orwell’s 1984, although I think I became aware of it in a variety of ways. I distinctly remember reading 1984 – the part that focuses on protagonist Winston Smith’s job of systematically erasing and re-writing moments in Oceania’s history – and feeling distressed by the idea. I was bothered not only by the idea that historical moments could be erased, but by how much power was wrapped up in the control of history. An insecure historical record seemed to throw the whole of the present political reality into a perpetual state of insecurity. I realized that real historical investigation and documentation helps keep us, the living, grounded and accountable.
The last part is more simple. Though it sounds like I knew what I wanted to study in college, I was actually far from it – I entered NYU as an “undecided” major. The first couple years of college I took various courses in literature and the social sciences and discovered that history was at the foundation of all of them. In order to make sense out of writers’ themes or philosophers’ and social scientists’ concerns, we had to consider historical context and how interpretations of “facts” have changed over time. History seemed to provide the foundation for everything else anyone would study, and historical studies offered a way of understanding the significance of social documents such as works of art or literature, scientific studies, legal documents, etc.
Why labor history?
To be honest I never consciously decided to study labor history. As soon as I learned what social history was, I knew it was for me. It made sense that most official history written through time – prior to the rise of social history – had been primarily a chronicle of the most powerful members of society. What was missing, of course, was everyone else’s story. I became incredibly interested in finding and telling the story that hadn’t been documented, and in understanding how control over language and history is linked to visibility and power. I also learned that when people get involved in the documentation of their own history it could be instructional and empowering.
I guess my work on the United Farm Workers grew out of these various beliefs as well as my own curiosity in understanding the break between the New Left and the labor movement in the 1960s. As I said, I grew up learning very little about the U.S. labor movement and a disproportionate amount about the “sixties” movements – Civil Rights, Women’s Liberation, the Student Movement (although what I learned was surely a limited representation of these movements). So once I learned of the labor movement I was naturally curious about why many educators today seem to evade discussion of organized labor and its heyday and its struggles.
So I guess the summary is that my decision to study labor history was in part an effort to understand labor history’s apparent invisibility. And my interest in understanding labor history’s invisibility was tied to my belief that labor history must be more widely known and appreciated because of its potential to instruct and empower by pointing out that organized labor has been and can be a source of power in society. Of course, considering labor history’s apparent invisibility, it’s only fitting that I came to study labor history without realizing I was studying labor history.
What led you to your topic of researching the UFW in NYC?
As I was saying I wanted to investigate overlaps between the labor movement and the 1960s social movements to better understand why organized labor played such an apparently small role in this revolutionary period (that is not to say that labor actually played a small role, but rather that up until that point I had very little knowledge that organized labor played any kind of significant role in the 1960s movements).
I decided for my thesis I’d investigate a particular moment of overlap between the labor movement and the women’s movement to try to get a feeling for how individuals who potentially belonged to both movements were organizing and expressing themselves at the time. I went to my thesis adviser, Linda Gordon, with this vague idea of what I wanted to study and she explain to me that I’d have to come up with a question that was a little more concrete, and suggested I pick a particular event or organization to focus on. She gave me a list of events and organizations to consider and one of the items on the list was the United Farm Workers, a group I knew very little about at the time.
I began doing some preliminary research and came across an essay by a scholar named Margaret Rose that talked about the UFW grape boycott in Philadelphia, and discussed the important role Chicana organizers played in the boycott’s success. Rose argued that the Chicana UFW organizers appealed to the public using both feminist and maternalist language, and united women on the basis of being empowered wives and mothers devoted to working men. I loved her discussion of language, and was excited by the idea that the UFW movement united people of such diverse backgrounds – across race, ethnicity, religion, age, and socioeconomic level. I was also interested in the notion that this traditional labor cause was to some extent disguised, or re-interpreted, by the UFW organizers through the popular language of the day. I felt like I’d found the overlap that I was looking for, so I did more online research and discovered that Margaret Rose was the only person who’d studied the boycott in detail. I lived in New York City – another site of the grape boycott – and thought human and written sources on the boycott would be abundant and accessible. So, I moved forward from there.
Where and how did you conduct your research?
The bulk of my research was conducted using sources from the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee New York Boycott Office Records, part of the Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs at the Walter Reuther Library in Detroit. I got a grant from the library and flew out to Detroit for a few days to visit the archives, and returned to New York with around five hundred digital photographs of archival documents. I then spent several weeks reading through the documents. As I went through them I made lists of notes about questions and themes that arose, and anything else that seemed significant.
I also did some research at the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives in New York City (situated on the tenth floor of NYU’s enormous Bobst Library on Washington Square South). The Printed Ephemera Collection on Trade Unions – part of the Tamiment Collection – provided me with a number of New York City-based newspaper articles from the mainstream and New Left Press at the time of the boycott. The articles gave me a sense of how certain members and groups of the New York public viewed the UFW movement and boycott, and how coverage of the UFW boycott varied from coverage of other organized labor activity at the time. I also used online databases such as Proquest and the New York Times archives to search for old newspaper articles.
I would have loved to include a few interviews with boycott participants, but this ended up being too ambitious to accomplish in one semester.
Among your findings, what struck you as the most important factors or lessons?
I guess the most ingrained lesson I came away with was a sense that political dialogue has a way of simplifying and organizing interests in a way that can be very useful, but can also obscure other important realities – such as shared cultural beliefs or social interests. To explain better, I kicked off my research in October 2012 with a review of a series of New York Times articles that emphasized repeatedly that public opinion of organized labor, especially amongst young people, was low in the 1960s. In fact I did not find a single New York Times article from the late 1960s that offered a positive perspective or optimistic view of the labor movement. In articles from the New Left Press I also found articles, written by young radicals, that expressed contempt at organized labor leaders’ corruption and racism. Skip ahead a few months to January 2013 and I’m reading a series of letters written in 1968 by New York City boycott supporters in which people repeatedly express their commitment to workers’ rights to unionize and bargain collectively, and the belief that a fair contract between capital and labor forms the basis of American democracy. These letters were written by students; by black, white, and Latino community organizers; by housewives; and by religious leaders. And they all said practically the same thing: workers’ rights to unionize should be inalienable.
So, there was this expression of shared interest that was going entirely unrepresented by the mainstream press, and that may have gone unnoticed by the public itself except for the fact that the UFW movement brought these people together for a brief moment. Based on the content of the letters, people were not losing faith in the importance of organized labor, they just weren’t seeing the institution of labor as adequately representing their own interests. The United Farm Workers’ fresh discourse of social justice and civil rights resonated with people as a form of expression even as it argued for a traditional labor cause. The UFW boycott organizers found a way of making an old movement seem new and relevant and full of hope for change. In terms of lessons to emphasize today, I’d say it seems important that the labor movement represent and express itself in a way that resonates not only with its rank and file – those who are already organized – but also with those it aspires to represent, and with the sympathetic pubic – or potentially sympathetic public – more generally.
One other conclusion I drew from my research was a sense that it might be helpful for the labor movement to reestablish or re-articulate the relationship between consumers and laborers. After all, the strength of midcentury consumptive power was tied to the strength of midcentury productive power and the wellbeing of working people. It would do well for consumers today who consider themselves moral citizens to realize that they have a power to demand a certain quality of product and a certain care and consideration for the people who produce it. A well-paid, organized workforce can help to keep businesses in check in a way that benefits society in general. The UFW boycott really thrived off of the popular belief that the wellbeing of the economy and American society in general was directly tied to the wellbeing of American workers, and this is no less true today.
How do you see the future for working people?
Well, I guess I see the state of our economy and the treatment of our working people as so bad that some kind of great restructuring is in order and will be more widely demanded. I feel optimistic that the labor movement will grow and will gain sympathy as it begins to align its interests with those of other marginalized groups, with young people, and with the growing social concerns of the public more generally. In the last couple years it’s seemed that the injustices of our current political economy have been becoming more visible through Occupy Wall Street, through the publicizing of workplace safety violations and factory accidents, through investigation of the causes and repercussions of the 2008 financial crisis, and through the recent mobilization of Wal-Mart and fast food restaurant workers. I guess I’m especially optimistic about the fast food restaurant worker organizing because I have a sense that any effort that’s going to have a long-term, wide-ranging impact on the lives of working people is going to have to begin with the labor movement, and is going to have to be inclusive and representative of the labor force as it looks today.
I am optimistic too because I feel that people my age – at least those who think about economic justice – have a relatively positive view of the labor movement (granted, I probably have a skewed view of young people having attended private urban northeastern schools all my life). I definitely feel that any successful organizing effort will have to find a way of drawing in young people and making them understand their interests in the context of the broader struggle for economic justice. Young people of all backgrounds are seeing their life chances limited by the rising costs of education, the massive burden of student debt, and an increasing reliance of the non-profit and for-profit sectors on unpaid or underpaid labor. And these issues can be connected to the realities that our country relies on a very large under-skilled, underpaid, and unorganized work force.
Surely globalization, widespread un- and underemployment, a business-friendly political culture, and increasing economic inequality are undermining working people’s capacity to organize and mobilize and demand justice. But I think if the success of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign showed anything, it’s that people are ready for change and there exists the potential for meaningful grassroots organization if there is identified a clearly defined goal and a resonant and unifying message.