Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Tenement Talks Tonight: Philip Dray on "There is Power in a Union"

Labor issues are not an insignificant part of every Tenement Museum program. Immigrant families like the tenants of 97 Orchard Street toiled over their work, trying to make a better life for their children and themselves. Often these workers were exploited by management, laboring in unsanitary conditions for low wages and long hours.

At the turn of the 20th century, men and women joined organized labor unions, battling (quite literally at times) for better wages, shorter working hours and more sanitary working conditions.

Philip Dray, the author of There is Power in a Union, answers some of my questions on how he became invested in writing about civil rights and liberties for workers.

Tell me about your background.
I grew up in Minnesota and have lived in NYC for many years. I’m not a professor. I just had an interest in history and like to write.

Your books include Stealing God’s Thunder: Benjamin Franklin’s Lightning Rod and the Invention of America; At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America; and Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressman. You’re writing often focuses on civil rights and liberties - what draws you to this aspect of history and culture?
Yes, I am inclined towards civil rights subjects. I think it’s partly that the work of doing a book is so arduous that it must involve a subject you love, and it makes it easier when you’re describing people you basically admire. Plus, obviously you want to write about issues that matter and that you feel deserve amplification – I try to do this by relating historical stories.

Your new book, There is Power in a Union, spans several decades, even more than one century. Does a particular time period inspire you?
Probably very early 20th century, the era of the colorful Wobblies, Emma Goldman, et al. It was a period of inspiring mass organization.

What methods did you use when you began researching this book?
With a subject this huge you can’t get to everything. I try to be strategic about what I need to read and research, mostly news accounts, oral histories, etc.

Here at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, one of our tours focuses on sweatshops at the turn of the century – specifically garment workers and the advent of the ILGWU. Did you find Clara Lemlich or other sweatshop organizers in your research?
Yes, the 1909-1911 period was important labor history. An inspiring strike by young women, older liberal women as allies, efforts at industrial democracy, and then the terrible fire and reforms were demanded regarding fire safety.

Do you have plans to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire?
I don’t have specific plans for March 25, 2011. I hope to attend events at the building site.

What about now? Is there still power in a union today?
Of course, it’s a universal principal. Workers even under repressive conditions will eventually learn to use their collective might. We see it in China today and among car wash workers in LA.

Please join Philip Dray on Wednesday, September 15 at 6:30 pm to hear more about There is Power in a Union. Tenement Talks are held at the Museum Shop, 108 Orchard Street at Delancey.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the informative post and for actually replying to your readers’ comments. That’s something I don’t see very many blog owners doing and that makes me frustrated. Keep up the good work and I’ll continue coming back here to learn more....


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