East Side Tenement Museum

New York City        I always meant to go to see the East Side Tenement Museum every time I visited New York City over the years, but somehow my usual schedule never put me close enough to make the schlep and schedule the visit until now when in the city on a Sunday afternoon.  I’m embarrassed to admit this, because I felt like I had been there almost at the birthing, listening to my friend and colleague Ruth Abram advance this project from a twinkle in her eye to full-blown reality.

My debt to Ruth was always enormous.  In 1974, going to New York for the first time to try to raise money for the fledgling ACORN, Ruth had given me an appointment as the then executive director of the small Norman Foundation.  Midway through our first meeting, she called out to her secretary to bring her an atlas so she could see exactly where Arkansas was located.  In typical Ruth-fashion, not only did she convince Norman step out on the limb to give the first ever foundation grant to ACORN’s c3, the Arkansas Institute for Social Justice, but she also became a one-woman-Pied Piper trying to encourage others to do the same. She took me under wing, even giving me a place to stay with her and her family, first on the Upper East Side and then later in the 1980s in Riverdale, when she and her family with Herb Teitelbaum moved up there.  After our first visit, she had a dinner the next year at her place in order to introduce me to David Hunter and his wife of the Stern Fund, which was a pacemaker for progressive funders at the time.  And, that was the first of several.  At its closing, ACORN had been the largest cumulative grant recipient in Stern’s history.

Ruth could raise money from a rock.  She was Atlanta charming and effervescent and New York smart and fearless when it came to fundraising.  She was inimitable, and taught me more than I ever was able to practice in my own eccentric and conflicted approach to foundations.  She went from Norman to other ventures including a woman’s project at the ACLU.  She was made to be an activist, not a grants maker.  So I wasn’t surprised on one of my spring trips, she explained to me her idea of trying to do the impossible and create a tenement museum to show life on the lower East Side during the time it was a Jewish ghetto.  First, she had to enroll at NYU to take history courses to get deeply grounded, and then it was off to the races.  By 1988, she was opening the East Side Tenement Museum as its key founder, and it has now grown to be a $14 million per year institution and one of the must-see, highly regarded museums in the city focusing on “living” history.

Decidedly, the Tenement Museum is a different sort of experience even 20 years later.  You don’t wander through.  You are led by the hand at about $25 a pop.  No touching, which is easy to understand because the artifacts from the family apartments are fragile.  No photos either, but I’m not sure what the reason for that might be.  We of course went on the sweatshop tour for a touch of labor history and the inspiring call to arms of the Strike of the 20,000 that help lead to the organization of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), now subsumed by UNITE-HERE.

Quite a thrill to see what Ruth accomplished here, and to flip through the pages in their small book in their bustling gift shop and see her picture at the lectern in the foreground at the 1988 founding with Mayor Koch, ACORN’s arch nemesis, seated in the background, as he rightly should have been.


Fast Food Justice Wins Checkoff in New York City

Little Rock   New York City passed a first-of-its-kind, one and only ordinance last year in an effort to help fast food workers in the city who have been trying to organize under various banners since the Fight for $15 campaign began. The ordinance required employers – in this case, fast food companies – to allow payroll deductions to be processed for membership dues payments to a nonprofit that was not a union or engaged in collective bargaining but was advocating for workers rights.

Fast Food Justice, a nonprofit in New York City meeting those requirements has succeeded in getting 1200 fast food workers to sign such pledges in order to trigger the requirement. These workers have agreed to pay monthly dues to the organization of $13.50 per month. Reportedly, the effort was supported by the Service Employees International Union, which has been the organizer and paymaster of such campaigns for almost all of these efforts in recent years.

Leaders of Fast Food Justice who did the work are of course happy and wild, enthusiastic congratulations to all of them for doing the work and getting the job done. The National Restaurant Association says that it will sue and that the ordinance discriminates against fast food employers, so this may be delayed in court or thrown out completely. The New York Times quoted someone from the National Employment Law Project saying that this accomplishment was important as a step forward towards “sustainability.” Professor Janice Fine, a respected labor scholar, colleague, and friend, said it was “proof of concept,” and that is certainly true, given that the barrier was set high under the ordinance and many believed it would not be achieved, so she’s right as rain on that.

Janice was also quoted further saying, “When I speak to people in other cities, they get really interested. They can imagine a law like this one where they are.” Frankly, while we applaud the success of Fast Food Justice in New York City, Janice and any others asked need to advise organizers to go another direction.

Why should Janice and I say this? Let me list the reasons.

  • It is almost the identical amount of work, perhaps a little more, to get workers to sign dues authorizations to their credit/debit cards or banking accounts.
  • There is no threshold or time barrier to dues being collected other than what the organization sets and the members allow, as opposed to this precedent. [See similar threshold for Texas state workers that only CWA could ever climb until 1992!]
  • This is a highly mobile workforce that will move from operator to operator so employer specific checkoff like this is not as advantageous as direct deposits by the workers. [Can you imagine how much time and trouble it will take Fast Food Justice to get Arby’s to pick up the deduction for a former Papa John worker, when the worker moves to a new job?!?]
  • Direct payment from the workers entails no bars on the type of activity the workers can pursue both on and off the job, both as a workers’ organization or for that matter as a union.
  • There is no legal question or any governmental authority that can challenge direct payment and dues deductions from workers to an organization, since this is constitutionally protected and personal.
  • All forms of employer dues deductions are under attack so whenever we can take the employer out of the equation when a worker decides to join and support an organization – or union – that’s a better course.

So, congratulations Fast Food Justice, and good luck bringing justice to fast food workers, but for those organizations trying to sustain such work, go a better route by directly enrolling workers and facilitating their dues payments through their personal financial tools.