NYLHA Conference: “Can’t Turn Back: Unfinished Tasks of the Civil Rights Movement”

The New York Labor History Association is proud to present a labor history month conference on the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and today’s ongoing fight for racial and economic justice. The conference kicks off Friday, May 6th with a keynote address by Jerald Podair entitled “They Couldn’t Wait: A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and the Struggle for American Equality,” and continues Saturday, May 7th with panel discussions on such timely and enduring topics as mass organizing, housing, policing, economic inequality, and education.


The conference will be held at The Worker Institute at Cornell ILR, 16 East 34th Street, 6th Floor, NYC. Boxed lunch and beverages will be provided.


Note: Registration for the conference is now closed.

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2015 Bellush and Wertheimer Prizes Awarded

The Bernard Bellush and Barbara Wertheimer Prizes for best graduate and undergraduate work related to labor history were awarded at the NYLHA’s Commerford Reception, held last December.   Dr. Brian Greenberg of Monmouth University presented the awards, delivering these remarks:

On behalf of Bob Wechsler and myself, the New York Labor History Association is pleased to honor the excellent and moving work being done in labor history by graduate students and undergraduate students. This year we had more submissions than ever before, a testament to the continued engagement of an embattled labor movement.

There are two papers by graduate students sharing the 2015 Bernard Bellush Prize. They are, “This is Your Hometown: Collective Memory, Industrial Flight, and the Fate of Freehold, New Jersey,” by Jonathan Cohen, a doctoral student at the University of Virginia and Doug Genens, “Fighting Poverty in the Fields: Legal Services and the War on Poverty in Rural California.” Doug is a Ph.D. student at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

We also gather to recognize the best work by an undergraduate. The 2015 Barbara Wertheimer Prize goes to Jared Odessky, for  his Columbia University Senior Honor’s thesis, “Queer Teacher Organizing, the Religious Right, and Battles over Child Protection in South Florida’s Schools, 1977-1997.” Jared’s paper addressed the long and short term responses of South Florida’s queer teachers to Anita Bryant’s 1977 “Save Our Children” campaign.

It bears repeating that Jared’s paper and the two prize-winning Bellush papers are outstanding examples of the range and exceptional high quality of the work being submitted to the committee. 

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Who is John Commerford?

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.

Thank you.

Irwin Yellowitz

President, New York Labor History Association