The Forgotten Union

District 65 grew powerful by organizing low-wage workers that had been ignored by the traditional labor movement.

“We don’t make stuff anymore.” It’s one of the most common refrains of contemporary popular discourse, and it reflects the widespread nostalgia for an era in which workers with little formal education could get a well-paying job in the factory down the street. It’s an attractive vision for sure, but it’s one that bears little resemblance to our actual history.

Many women and people of color faced huge barriers to winning that kind of life for themselves and their families. Despite popular perceptions, employment in the service sector has always exceeded employment in manufacturing throughout the entire course of US history – even in the nineteenth century.

Today, as agricultural and industrial employment continue their long decline, ever-growing numbers of workers find themselves employed in the highly stratified service economy. While a relatively small number of workers at the top of the scale are very skilled and highly paid, conditions for many service workers are pretty miserable.

Workers in retail, fast food, and other occupations suffer low wages, unpredictable shifts, and minimal or nonexistent benefits. Unionization is severely limited, and employers fight back ferociously (and often illegally) against worker organizing campaigns.

Of course, there is a long history behind all of this. The going wage associated with many service jobs is the result of long-standing practices and ideas about what constitutes a “living” or “family” wage and about who should serve whom.

Women have always been disproportionately burdened with low-paid care work, and were often forced out of the labor market upon marriage. Similarly, low wages for African-American men and immigrant workers were justified by their ostensibly inferior social and cultural status.

Whatever the emerging middle class of white native-born Americans wanted to pay them was better than what they were used to, at least in the minds of employers. Laundresses, nurses, teachers, clerical workers, porters, domestics, nannies, telephone operators, clerks, and salesgirls were all paid in accordance with these kinds of social and cultural assumptions.

The largest of the service sector employers (e.g. Marshall Field or Bell Telephone) reaped huge profits from these arrangements. Employers in the public sector and in health care, which employed women and people of color in huge numbers in the country’s schoolrooms and hospitals, followed suit.

In this situation, the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century labor movement faced an enormously difficult task: to make even the most basic gains for service workers, it would have to upend several levels of social and cultural assumptions in addition to employers’ ingrained hostility to any kind of labor organizing, regardless of the demographics of the workers involved.

Organizing any kind of worker was difficult in these years, but American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions representing men in the skilled trades (plumbers, carpenters, bricklayers, etc.) began to gain a permanent foothold in the 1880s, and unskilled and semi-skilled men employed in basic industry (auto, electrical, steel, meatpacking) joined the ranks of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) en masse during the 1930s.

By contrast, most service workers — even if they managed to organize with either the AFL (e.g., waitresses) or the CIO (e.g., clerical workers) — failed to develop organizational structures geared toward the problems and issues specific to their sector. There were, however, a few exceptions.

A “Catch-All” Union

One exception was New York City’s District 65 — a small but highly influential union that fought the confines of the craft and industrial models for decades, targeting workers who slipped through the cracks. We can learn a lot from their approach.

Known only by its number, District 65 was a “catch-all” union that organized whoever — women, African Americans, and recent immigrants from southern and eastern Europe — and wherever it could, paying little attention to the industry in which its members worked. Its guiding philosophy was to target the lowest paid workers who were routinely ignored by other unions.

New York has never been a manufacturing hub. In addition to its large construction industry, the Big Apple has long been dominated by light manufacturing as well as services of all kinds, distribution, and retail.

District 65 organized these sectors when they were considered to be secondary in economic and strategic importance to manufacturing. As service, distribution, and retail have come to dominate the US economy, the organizing strategies District 65 pioneered are quite relevant to the labor movement today.

As a relatively small island, Manhattan didn’t have the geographical or physical capacity to develop a large-scale manufacturing center. Instead, small businesses selling retail, wholesale, and specialty items grew to dominate the city’s economy.

These small-scale firms, along with the transportation system and other public services, provided New York merchants with the capacity to distribute their wares outside the city and provided even immigrant peddlers with the possibility of eventual small-shop ownership.

The Depression put an end to that kind of growth. In 1934, in the middle of the wave of mass strikes that would power a flurry of New Deal reform legislation, Arthur Osman and four of his coworkers organized a wholesale clerks’ union in New York’s Lower East Side. Osman and many of his coworkers were Jewish immigrants, working in a field that no longer provided upward mobility.

Osman and his coworkers chose to form their own union rather than affiliate with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) — by far the biggest labor organization in the city — which was organized along craft lines and followed a “family wage” ideology.

Tailors and cutters (occupations dominated by men) made the highest wages while women seamstresses and sewing machine operators, working in dingy tenements or hellacious sweatshops like the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, remained unorganized.

Osman disagreed with how the lowest paid workers remained unorganized and refused to affiliate his tiny wholesale clerks’ union with either the ILGWU or the United Hebrew Trades. Instead he opted to join forces with the new CIO movement. After an argument with lead CIO organizer John Brophy, Osman reluctantly affiliated his small union with the United Retail, Wholesale, and Employees Association (URWEA) to form the union local that became District 65 in 1936.

But Osman had big plans for his local. As a full-time organizer for the amalgamated union, he took it in a completely different direction, away from industrial organizing and toward what he called “area” or “catch-all” organizing.

The union organized every wholesale shop on Orchard Street and eventually marched around the corner to Broadway, organizing each shop from “top to bottom” along the way. District 65 organized not just clerks but secretaries, sweepers, and delivery men too.

The shops’ owners, who typically employed just four to six people, signed contracts covering everyone who worked for them. Their neighbors were often forced to do the same after word got around to workers that the union would get you an extra few cents per hour and Saturdays off.

Osman himself had become his “own man” as District 65’s president and fought for that same kind of respect for the people he organized — the workers that nobody else wanted.

No one in the labor movement paid much attention to Osman or District 65 until the union started making noticeable gains. By 1941, it had fifteen thousand members and had expanded to organize workers in second-hand clothing stores and the small warehouses maintained by wholesale shops.

But as District 65 expanded, its aggressive approach to organizing all the workers in a shop raised the ire of the ILGWU and the Teamsters, who jealously guarded their jurisdictional boundaries.

Osman and his colleagues were undeterred. They argued that the older, more established unions effectively forfeited their jurisdictional rights when they ignored the needs of low-wage service workers.

By and large, District 65’s strategy of creating facts on the ground succeeded. Of the thousands of contracts the union negotiated, only a handful were subject to major jurisdictional disputes, and those involved the URWEA’s wholesale locals.

Because the workers District 65 organized weren’t already enrolled in another union, the URWEA almost always awarded jurisdiction to District 65.

The Challenge of Solidarity

Representing such a large, diverse membership base was challenging. In order to build solidarity among its members, District 65 adopted an anticapitalist, antiracist, multi-religious (and almost anti-sexist, but not quite) framework. Considering the union’s birthplace, this approach wasn’t surprising.

Osman and the union’s early organizers were steeped in the radical immigrant counterculture that thrived in the teeming Lower East Side, where socialist, communist, and anarchist activists speaking Yiddish and a host of other languages appealed to the neighborhood’s proletarian masses. Theirs was an unabashedly anticapitalist vision that denounced the divisions the employers sowed among workers.

The union’s guiding philosophy, combined with the unique economic geography of the areas it organized, generated novel organizing practices. District 65’s disparate membership base — fragmented among a vast array of small shops and warehouses throughout the city — forced it to maintain a huge steward system consisting of one member from each shop.

The union had hundreds of stewards, who were required to attend weekly meetings, engage in intensive organizing-training, and take labor history and economics classes. The stewards were the conduit of information about union dues, political action, rallies, and impending strikes — everything that was relevant to the life of the union. When a strike at a small shop was called, the stewards mobilized hundreds of pickets from around the city and often had them all in place by lunch time.

Stewards were not just required to attend meetings and distribute information. They also had to make sure that all the workers in their shop paid union dues because District 65 never negotiated a dues check-off in any of its contracts. Each union member was required to go down to the hall to pay in person; if not, they heard about it at work the next week from their steward.

Osman thought it was crucial that union members and organizers be in constant contact in order to build solidarity with fellow members and take advantage of everything the union had to offer. If nothing else, a weekly appearance at the union hall enabled members to complain.

District 65 also maintained a very active hiring hall, modeled on the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), another union led by militants who came out of or were influenced by the Communist Party’s trade union milieu.

The hiring hall provided another source of solidarity for its members. In a few instances, the union used it to desegregate all-white or all-Jewish shops, sending black workers from the hall over and over again until the shop owner was forced to hire them.

If no jobs were available, union members worked at the hall, manned picket lines, and did anything else the union needed. People who were looking for work sometimes joined the union for that reason alone, and were eventually dispatched to permanent union jobs.

By the end of World War II, District 65 had a respectable number of members, its own union hall on Astor Place, and a union-administered health insurance plan for its members. It organized recreational sports teams, held educational classes every Saturday, brought in speakers including Martin Luther King Jr, entertainers like Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger, and organized resort vacations in the Catskills.

Ultimately, and with some coercion, District 65 offered its still relatively low-paid members a way of life that bestowed an identity other than “low-wage worker.” It was grounded in a class-based identity that sought to transcend members’ disparate racial, ethnic, religious, and gender identities. They were all proud “65ers” who donned their famous green union buttons wherever they went.

Back to the Future

Arthur Osman and the union’s second president, David Livingston, also engaged District 65’s members in the political struggles of the 1950s–1970s. The union was one of the first to be targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee for its Communist lineage, and became a major player in the Civil Rights Movement.

Long before historians artificially separated the supposedly discrete “labor” and “civil rights” movements, District 65 organized rallies in Union Square to protest Emmett Till’s murder, supported the Montgomery bus boycott (the start of the union’s long-term relationship with Martin Luther King Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference), and worked with A. Philip Randolph to organize the 1963 March on Washington (some of the early organizational meetings were held at District 65’s headquarters). The union was heavily engaged in anti–Vietnam War protests and offered some of the women in the union a path to leadership roles by organizing book-binding shops that employed primarily women.

By the mid-1970s, organized labor was already in the beginning stages of its long and torturous decline. Manufacturing-sector employment in particular took a major hit, as automation, lean production, and relocation to non-union areas in the United States and other countries drastically reduced the number of industrial union members.

In 1969, the United Auto Workers and a small number of union allies moved to organize a “third” labor federation, the Alliance for Labor Action (ALA), that sought to shift labor’s organizing focus from particular jobs, industries, and crafts to workers as a whole. Eventually the ALA absorbed District 65.

Like District 65, the ALA targeted low-wage and historically unorganized workers. It was short-lived, but nevertheless foreshadowed organizing strategies that have emerged in the past few decades. AFSCME, SEIU, AFT, UNITE-HERE, UAW, USWA, Workers United, and almost all other unions today organize workers on a general basis regardless of the jobs they’re in. In that sense, labor is more “class” oriented in our era, more attuned to organization at a geographical or area level, and is more interested in cutting across race and gender lines.

District 65 was never a giant and had many flaws. Nevertheless it provides a largely forgotten but highly relevant example of effective service sector organizing.