The Velvet Glove and the Iron Fist

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New York City public-sector workers marching in the 1950s. District Council 37

In the late nineteenth century New York City was covered in trash, ash, and horse shit. In addition to the dirt, garbage, and snow bedeviling New Yorkers today, the streets were strewn with mountains of cinders from innumerable coal-burning furnaces, and the excrescence of over two hundred thousand horses depositing sixty thousand gallons of urine and 2,500,000 pounds of manure onto the streets each day.

The dominant scientific theory of “miasma” attributed diseases like smallpox to airborne odors, and while the scholarly consensus was shifting toward the modern theory of germs, enthusiastic consensus remained that bad odors ought to be eliminated regardless.

Keeping the streets clean and unobstructed was paramount to public health, optimal circulation and consumption of commodities, and quality of life in a city where the rich and poor share many of the same streets. Street cleaning was therefore source of social power for the workers who could strike their tools and let the garbage pile up.

Beginning in 1888, New York sanitation workers did just that, embarking on a spate of successful strikes opposing speedup and late wages, and demanding a regular work schedule. Their struggle came to foreshadow the whole trajectory of public-sector unionism in New York City.

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