The New York Labor History Association’s 29th annual John Commerford Labor Education awards were presented this past December. Before a packed house, Irwin Yellowitz, President of the NYLHA, delivered these remarks on the legacy of John Commerford and the mission of the NYLHA:
Inevitably, I am asked “Who is John Commerford”, for whom our labor education awards are named? He has been largely forgotten even though he was the major leader of the first labor movement in the United States in the 1830s. Commerford headed the General Trades’ Union in New York City, which brought together the unions of skilled workers, and he was a major figure in the National Trades’ Union that sought to unify unions on a national level. Commerford did not have the benefit of major prior unionization, and thus much of what he accomplished was a new response to a new situation. The labor movement of the 1830s was wiped out by the financial panic of 1837. An even larger labor movement in the 1860s collapsed in the Depression of 1873. It was only in the 1880s that a labor movement was established for good. When we confront problems with organizing today, we should understand that it never has been otherwise in this country.
Commerford also stressed education as necessary for empowering workers. It was to be free public education, and would in his mind allow workers to learn their own worth and the truth about the economic and political system so they could make necessary and significant reforms. If Commerford were with us tonight, I am afraid he would agree that his hopes have not been met. Our purpose is to restore his historical standing, and to continue his work in labor education.
The NY Labor History Association believes we must recapture the past and make it relevant for the present. We present programs throughout the year with this purpose in mind. In September, we discussed a book on the New Deal and its relevance for today; in October, we had a panel discussion on labor history and labor journalism; in March 2016, we will sponsor a book event on Bob Bussel’s, Fighting for Total Person Unionism; in May there will be a conference on Race and Labor as part of Labor History Month, for which we publicize the many events that take place in this area through our very attractive Labor History Month Calendar; and in June we are planning a book event about a study of the tumultuous course of transit unionism in Philadelphia, which closely resembled events in NYC. Members receive notice of these free events and others, plus the Labor History Month Calendar and our newsletter. If you are not a member, we invite you to join us. Dues are only $20.00 per year.
President, New York Labor History Association