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From the Colonial Era to the 21st Century, a Workers’ History of NYC

An exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York looks at the history of workers and unions in New York City, from the colonial era to the 21st century.

City of Workers, City of Struggle: How Labor Movements Changed New York is the title of both the show and a companion book of essays edited by Professor Joshua B. Freeman (The Graduate Center, Queens College, Labor and Urban Studies). “New York has been a place with an incredibly rich but complicated labor history,” said Freeman, who served as academic advisor to the exhibition and also contributed a chapter to the book about the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Watch this two-minute video featuring Professor Joshua Freeman describing a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York about labor history. He wrote a companion book for the show and served as its academic advisor.
Drawing of city's first Labor Day parade, 1882
Detail of drawing of city’s first Labor Day parade, 1882, on display at Museum of City of New York

In the city’s first 200 years, work was often done by unpaid laborers –slaves, indentured servants, and apprentices. The 19th century saw the growth of groups representing factory workers. These new unions – like the American Federation of Labor, co-founded by cigar maker Samuel Gompers – fought for safe working conditions and an eight-hour day. The exhibition includes a drawing depicting a massive turnout for the city’s first Labor Day parade in 1882.

But this nascent labor movement often excluded women, immigrants, and people of color. In 1909, thousands of immigrant Jewish women in the garment industry took to the streets to advocate for themselves, winning better pay and shorter hours.

Teachers' union president Albert Shanker's rolodex open to card for governor's contact information
Teachers’ union president Albert Shanker’s rolodex open to card for governor’s contact information, on display at Museum of the City of New York.

By the 1960s, unions wielded enormous political power, as shown by a photo of a 1964 garment workers’ rally attended by Robert F. Kennedy and Humbert Humphrey. Also on display is the rolodex of teachers’ union president Albert Shanker, open to a card for the governor’s office.

Nearly one in four New Yorkers belongs to a union today, but few work in manufacturing. Instead, they’re in service, government, and even professional jobs like nursing. Unions are now looking to organize workers in the tech and gig economies.

Other CUNY contributors to the book include Professor Johnathan Thayer (Queens College), writing about maritime workers; Professor Ruth Milkman (GC, Labor and Urban Studies), on the new “alt-labor” movement; Professor Joshua Brown (GC), on visual representations of 19th century workers; Professor William Herbert (Hunter College), on public workers; and Professors Margaret Chin (GC, Hunter) and Kenneth Guest (Baruch) on the restaurant and garment industries in Chinatown.

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Beyond SUM

Explore This Work

City of Workers, City of Struggle: How Labor Movements Changed New York
Columbia University Press, 2019

Work By

Joshua B. Freeman (Distinguished Professor, History) | Profile 1 | Profile 2

Bonus Content

"Labor Unions Shape NYC (video)" (The Graduate Center, YouTube)
"From Garment Workers to Gig Workers: Organized Labor in NYC" (The Graduate Center, CUNY)
"City of Workers, City of Struggle" (Museum of the City of New York)