For more than two centuries, New York City has been an incubator and battleground of movements by and for working people and today, 24 percent of New York City workers are unionized, compared to the national average of 11 percent.
City of Workers, City of Struggle at The Museum of The City follows the progression of the labor movement by breaking the history into four segments and then looking toward the future. The exhibition begins with the section “In Union There is Strength”, which documents the 19th century when there was a shift from the artisan to wage worker through the development of new patterns of work and employment, as well as new technology. This will be exemplified in the exhibition by an enormous wrench used to build the Brooklyn Bridge. It will also include an illustration of the day in 1882 when New York’s Central Labor Union launched the nation’s first Labor Day to underscore Labor’s efforts to secure better pay, hours, and working conditions.
The exhibition moves on to the period of 1900–1965 with the section “Labor Will Rule,” looking at an era when New York’s unions gained monumental power. By 1950, New York City had about one million union members representing at least a quarter of the entire workforce. However, this power was not equally shared as female, African American, Latino, and Asian American New Yorkers still fought obstacles to their presence in union ranks and leadership.
“Sea Change,” the third section, focuses on the years between 1965 and 2001. Over the preceding decades, hundreds of thousands of new immigrants had joined African Americans from the South and Puerto Ricans in coming to New York to seek opportunity. The city’s fiscal crisis in 1975, and a growing anti‐union mood in local and national politics, led to challenges for the movement to organize labor. These developments coincided with court and federal agency decisions that scaled back legal protections earlier won by organized labor. Together, they began a long weakening of unions’ economic and political power, as many New Yorkers worried about the costs of union contracts to the city and as the number of unionized workers declined nationwide. Between 1960 and 2000, New York City lost more than 650,000 manufacturing and port jobs as businesses automated or moved away in pursuit of lower wages and taxes, and fewer regulations.
The last section, “New Challenges,” looks at how New York activists after 2001 continued to reshape the future of labor by broadening the agenda to confront issues ranging from racial profiling to sexual violence, LGBTQ equality, environmental safety, and citizenship status. Worker Centers and other new community organizations used foundation grants, legal action, and public pressure to help non‐unionized and undocumented workers. In a changing economy, this “Alt Labor” or “New Labor” movement also mobilized people who worked as freelancers or in a succession of jobs.