I have been working in museums my entire career, which is a lot of years, close to 40. One of my favorite museums that I have worked at is the American Labor Museum in Haledon, New Jersey, just outside of New York City.
We used to show the film The Salt of the Earth almost on an annual basis because it is one of the few American-made movies that really gets into the grist of American labor from the perspectives of the workers. The story is so dramatic and powerful because it shows how the women came in and saved the day for the men. It is also a story for our times, when unions are not as powerful or as popular as they once were. You know, we forget that the eight-hour work day, minimum wage, and the abolishing of child-labor–all of these exist because unions have fought for those rights.
I think idea the Local 890 Union Hall becoming a museum is extremely important for the community because it gives the community a public place to talk about issues that will never go away: there will be workers, and there will be owners. There is always a relationship between those two–sometimes it is contentious. But they need a place to talk and remember the previous debates. We need to remember the anatomy of a strike and know what it takes to sustain energy during a struggle for dignity.
So throughout my career, I have been involved in labor history museums in all different places. In Charleston, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and upstate New York. There is a really important piece of American history that often does not get preserved because, I think, it feels a little too radical for a lot of us, but it is really fundamental to make work and life equal for everyone.
When I was in Pittsburg, I convinced the museum that we needed to collect the picket stand for a bus worker’s strike–a little shack made out of plywood, and cardboard, and tin–but it represented the struggle, for the public, to get fair wages. Some of the executives were scoffing about it, but it brought in people who have never been into the museum before. It brought a piece of their life into the museum. It gave them a space to talk about a part of their life that was not always covered in a public forum.
The union hall in Bayard is another opportunity for a community to preserve such a critical aspect of their lives. It is just a union hall. It is also not a marble building designed by a famous architect–something that is usually preserved. But it is important because so many lives were affected by it, so my decisions made there. That’s a place where they were fighting for the American Dream. And there is no better place to preserve than something that represents a fight for American rights, rights that help you protect your family, rights that help you build a better community.