On their best days, labor unions aspire to be much more than the enforcers of contracts and providers of member benefits. In their loftiest ambitions, unions hope to embrace the entire social well-being of workers—friendship, solidarity, and the celebration of art and culture. But while those activities were the focus of many early workers’ organizations, they quickly became unaffordable luxuries. “Meat and potatoes” issues were all many unions could handle.
Which is one reason that the Bread and Roses Cultural Project, an arm of health care workers Local 1199, is so special. Founded in 1979 to promote the arts for union members, it boasts the only permanent art gallery of any union in the country, a place where as many as six exhibits are installed annually. It is also a launching pad for plays, documentaries, and hands-on projects enlisting the members themselves in recording their lives and feelings.
The project was the brainchild of Moe Foner, who, years before he went to work for labor unions, had played saxophone in a swing band with his brothers. They did gigs at upstate Borscht Belt retreats and Manhattan hotels, and along the way came to know many other musicians, as well as actors and artists. The Brothers Foner were leftists with a vision; one went on to lead the furriers’ union, two others became renowned historians. Moe worked for several unions before landing at 1199 in 1952, back when it was a small union of pharmacy employees. Even then, he was looking for ways to integrate culture with his union work. He found a sympathetic ear in 1199’s founding president, Leon Davis, one that continues with current union head Dennis Rivera, who oversees a vastly transformed organization, representing more than 200,000 workers.
The project took its name from the slogan advanced by striking workers in the bitter 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, “We Want Bread and Roses Too.”
Last week a few dozen people, led by Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, 1199’s parent organization, squeezed into the Bread and Roses Martin Luther King Jr. Gallery on West 43rd Street to honor Foner, now 87, and to announce the creation of a scholarship in his name. Stern and a chorus of unionists rose to extol Foner and his many contributions.”Moe was the one who taught us how to promote our issues,” said 1199 vice president Jerry Hudson. “He taught us how to present our work to the world.”
Foner, confined to a wheelchair but still strong in voice, said that his work to mix culture and unionism stemmed from a single philosophic tenet. “The idea behind Bread and Roses is to challenge the idea that culture is elitist, somehow alien to working people,” he told the crowd. The evidence of his argument was on the walls around him, where the project’s latest exhibit was mounted, artwork created for its annual “Social Justice” calendar.
A Bad Employer Seeks City Aid
Six months ago, the mostly immigrant workforce at a kosher food-processing plant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, found working conditions harsh enough to walk out in protest, even though they had no formal union protection at the time. Employees said the company, called Tuv Taam, which means “good flavor” in Yiddish, forced them to work upward of 70 hours a week at wages as low as $3.50 an hour, well below the federally required minimum of $5.15. They also told of poor sanitary facilities, minimal safety equipment, and an almost medieval employer refusal to provide drinking water.
Workers maintained their picket line for several days until the managers announced that they could go back to work or be fired. Tuv Taam refused to take back several of the leaders of the protest, however. Most of the 32 striking employees chose to return, although in doing so they also voted to join a union, Local 1102 of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which promptly filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board.
Hearings on those charges are expected next month, but in the meantime Tuv Taam owners are seeking a tax-exempt city loan of $8.5 million to help them acquire two adjoining lots and buildings so that they can expand their food processing and packing business. This month, the city’s Industrial Development Agency, part of the Economic Development Corporation, published a newspaper announcement that it would consider floating bonds to help the company. The ad caught the attention of Andrew Stettner, director of a group called Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, which tried last summer to intervene on the workers’ behalf with Tuv Taam’s owners, who are Orthodox Jews.
“It’s a union-busting firm that has treated its workers outrageously,” said Stettner. “There are charges pending against them in the NLRB. The city certainly shouldn’t be assisting them.”
Greg Miley, a vice president of the city’s development agency, said that while the IDA had expected Tuv Taam to submit a formal proposal, no such application was received, so the item had been withdrawn from the agency’s December 10 calendar. He was unable to say what impact the firm’s labor-relations problems might have on a future application.Tuv Taam owner Aharon Nutovics did not respond to inquiries about his expansion plans or whether he intends to go forward with his loan request. But worker representatives said they were ready and waiting.
“If there’s a hearing we are going to be there, with a lot of the workers,” said Luis Lopez, director of organizing for Local 1102. “This is a company that treats its workers like animals. We will make sure the city hears our point of view.”
On Film: The Welfare Work Experience
The impact of the massive changes in the city’s welfare rules implemented by Mayor Giuliani, changes that resulted in some 600,000 people being removed from the rolls, still remains obscure. The Giuliani administration told city legislators and welfare advocates that it was too difficult to track those no longer on public assistance. The administration’s Work Experience Program was also largely shrouded from scrutiny. Giuliani insisted that criticism was motivated by narrow interests of unions fearful for their members’ jobs.
But when WEP workers announced in 1997 that they wanted to form their own union to protect their interests, it caught the attention of documentary filmmakers Kathy Leichter and Jonathan Skurnik. With assistance from PBS, the pair spent three years filming city WEP workers.
“We spent the first year just filming the union organizing drive, and none of that even made it into the movie,” said Skurnik, 37. The effort to unionize didn’t succeed, but it led the moviemakers to focus on three individuals in the program, all of whom were trying to get some control over their lives as the city’s bureaucracy shuffled them around.
“These were people who had never done anything political,” said Skurnik. “They decided to fight and to affiliate with grassroots organizations. By the end they are fierce warriors. You can seen them in the film yelling at Mayor Giuliani at a City Hall hearing on WEP.”
On December 4, about 450 people, many of them WEP veterans, piled into a screening room at the CUNY Graduate Center for a first look at the one-hour documentary, titled A Day’s Work, a Day’s Pay. The audience cheered at the first depiction of the harsh world into which welfare recipients were pitched by the changes. “It felt like an activist version of The Rocky Horror Show,” said Skurnik. The film, which will air this spring on public television, has won early plaudits from those who have been workfare critics. Peter Edelman, the former federal official who quit the Clinton administration in protest of the welfare changes, called it a “remarkable film” about “mean social policy and the impressive efforts of grassroots organizations to fight back.”
Research assistance by Ari Holtzblatt