I learned about people from Ma and about labor from Dad. Both were integral to my development, my openness at accepting others who are culturally and philosophically different than I, and my liberal and humanist worldview.
Ma collected people like she collected bone china cups, no two ever alike and each beautiful in its uniqueness. No matter who ended up knocking on our door, she invited them in, put the kettle on the gas stove, brewed a pot of tea, percolated the coffee, and took out the special cookies (the ones we weren’t allowed to eat so she had something for company) that she kept hidden in the honey oak china cabinet with the red shelves. Bone china cups were set out on the honey oak table that sat in our eat-in kitchen (there was no dining room in our tiny ranch house) and that was covered with the printed plastic tablecloth. Teaspoons (tiny silver-plated spoons with ornate scrolled handles), paper napkins, the sugar bowl, saccharine bowl, and milk pitcher completed the setting. I was sure to find a seat at the table, no matter how shy I was or how many people were seated at the table, so I could have my cuppa, black with a teaspoon of sugar, a Stella Dora anisette cookie or two, and a chance to hear the adult conversation. Ma made people laugh with her bawdy humor, but she also listened, advised, comforted, and solved problems and indecision for everyone from the other Australian war bride who suffered from nervous breakdowns to the interracial couple who had trouble finding friends and places to live to the gay couple who lived a couple houses up the street, fought as much as my parents did, and needed a mediator. Even though we didn’t have much, she always managed to find extra for anyone who needed it.
Dad started working when he was seven as a newspaper hawker on the corner of Madison and Green in downtown Albany and also as a jumper on delivery trucks. He rode in the truck bed and at delivery stops he would jump out and help unload cargo. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade so he could work full time to help support his family. When he was old enough to drive, he worked for Hamilton News driving a delivery truck. It was a union job. He worked union jobs until he retired, and then he worked them part time when they needed an extra man on the shift.
Dad was born on March 7, 1912, but one year earlier on March 25, 1911, a disaster in New York City, the city my father was born in, would give rise to unions in the United States. A fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The workforce consisted of young Jewish and Italian immigrant women, mostly between the ages of eighteen to twenty-three. The youngest was eleven and the oldest was forty-eight. The management locked the workers in the workrooms so the workers could not pilfer or take breaks. When the fire broke out, the women had no way to escape. Many died of smoke inhalation or were burned to death in the fire. Others leaped out of the eighth, ninth, and tenth floor windows to their deaths. In total, 146 garment workers died on that tragic day.
The tragedy prompted legislation to protect workers, and it spurred the growth of the first truly successful union, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union.
For more information see Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
The Depression and the implementation of President Roosevelt’s New Deal spurred further union growth, specifically The Wagner Act which gave unions the legal right to organize. The first female Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, lead the charge in protecting workers rights.
I joined the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 200, in 1980 when I became a library worker at Syracuse University. Dad had taught me the importance of unions, and I quickly got involved as a union steward. I sat at the table during labor contract negotiations and sat in on grievance meetings representing my colleagues. I protested with other SEIU members at a nursing home that refused to let its workers organize, all of us at risk of arrest. I volunteered to assist a grassroots organization called 9 to 5 the National Association of Working Women, to organize secretarial staff at the university, though they were never able to obtain enough signatures to organize there.
Then Jesse Jackson formed the National Rainbow Coalition in 1984, and unions became a large base of support for the organization. I became a political activist. We passed out campaign literature, walking miles and going door to door.
During both of Jesse Jackson’s runs for presidency, he stopped in Syracuse because of the large support base. I saw him both times. The first time I was pregnant, and held my hands in front of my baby bump to protect my twins, calling out, “Excuse me, pregnant woman coming through,” as I negotiated my way to a spot where I could see him clearly.
Just as I was about to launch a run as the first female vice president of SEIU, Local 200, I was offered a management job in 1987.
So the second time Jesse Jackson made a campaign stop in Syracuse, I was invited to attend with my union colleagues even though I had left the union. I was photographed with them at the event, standing in the front row with our SEIU support signs. The photo was printed on the front page of the Syracuse Post Standard the next day.
For more information see National Rainbow Coalition.
Unions helped build the middle class in our country. Manufacturing workers were able to afford homes, cars, and health care. They got paid time off including sick and disability leave. They had pensions that ensured they could retire in relative financial comfort. Unions kept executive pay in check. Back in the 1950s executive pay was about 50 times that of the average worker. Now it is over 500 times higher.
For more information see Executive Compensation.
Unions supported and were activists for many social initiatives such as paid maternity leave (and now family leave). The initiatives unions were able to push forward benefitted all workers. For example, whatever percentage salary increases we negotiated for our union members, the rest of the university staff received as well.
From the 1920s through the 1950s, unions and labor movements were often associated with Communism. Like threats of Socialism today, this lie helped perpetuate the belief that unions or any initiatives that protect workers’ rights should be feared by the masses. What they threatened, and still threaten, is a classist society driven by capitalism where the few get rich on the backs of the laborers.
Unions and the Democratic Party forged a unique bond over the years. Their longstanding relationship flourished in the late 1940s and into the 1950s, when the anti-labor Republicans came into power.
Now I live in the right-to-work state of North Carolina, and I see how not having a strong union presence has been detrimental to workers’ rights, including the lack of equal pay for equal work, lack of access to health care, and the ability to make a living wage. I also see that the Republican Party and the conservatives overall want to continue chipping away at workers’ rights. The wealthy, the 1%, are getting wealthier while the middle class is eroding and falling into economic decline and even poverty.
But unions took their first big hit in the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan. Air Traffic Controllers went out on strike, and Reagan, citing the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, ordered them back to work and fired over 11, 000 of them when they refused. It hurt the bargaining power of all unions after that and union membership has experienced a steady decline since then. Interestingly, President Reagan, in his former career as an actor, served as president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) from 1947 – 1952 and again in 1959. During the Red Scare and his tenure as the union president he agreed to spy on Guild members and open the organization’s member records to the FBI.
My husband Ronald, who is black, worked his whole career in a union shop, too, as a firefighter. When he first got on the Syracuse Fire Department in 1981, the union steward who worked on his shift told him he refused to represent him. Today the Syracuse Fire Department union has its first black president.
One cannot speak about labor history in the United States without talking about slave labor. Slaves, 5.5 million of which were forcibly immigrated to countries in the Western Hemisphere between 1492 and 1776 (only one million Europeans immigrated during that time period), provided labor ranging from field hands, stable boys, and domestics to artisanal labor such as coopers, carpenters, and stonemasons.
For more information see National Geographic.
They were also hired out, and buildings such as the Capitol Building and the White House, among other buildings and monuments in Washington, D.C., were built by a workforce that was predominately slave labor.
For more information see Slaves Built the Capitol.
I can only imagine what Dad would think about the conservative point of view in regard to workers rights today. Or how Ma, who loved to help others, would view the way in which people want to limit the rights of others to attain more profit and personal wealth.
We need to rediscover what the unions were so successful at doing: activism and the ability to organize. We need to celebrate all workers on this Labor Day and everyday. We built this.
Here’s my dad, Frank Liuzzi, second from the right. I chose this picture because he was already working when this photo was taken. He and his brothers, Jimmy, Danny, Lenny, and Rocco, (Rocco was not yet born when this photo was taken) all worked in the newspaper/printing businesses as delivery drivers and in the mailroom and were union members. Happy Labor Day!