The Word Logo


In this issue

Browse by

Past issues

Visit us online
or on Facebook


printer friendly siteFA Website Icon
February 2020


To the new roaring twenties
Susan Rubenstein DeMasi


The 1920s saw unions in decline due to the efforts of industrialists, but the newly formed American Civil Liberties Union fought against that decline.

Over the last month, I've seen enough Roaring 20s memes on social media and heard enough about flappers and other century-old cultural identifiers to last me until, well, maybe the next Roaring 20s.

But since I won't be here for that, indulge me while I wind up my Victrola, queue up Duke Ellington and George Gershwin phonographs (okay, so really, YouTube) and conjure up the news of the day—specifically the union news of the 1920s.

Was it swell? The bee's knees? Not so much.

Union membership declined after World War I and it would take the passage of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 to boost the numbers. Despite the many progressive movements of the 1920s that helped lay the groundwork for future social justice movements as well as the ratification of the 19th amendment, conservative and narrow-minded forces flourished. Protestors were jailed for offenses ranging from handing out birth control flyers to speaking out against the draft. Immigrants deemed too radical were rounded up and deported.

The newly born ACLU regularly fought against the "virulent anti-union crusades" of the 1920s that were financed by industrialists and supported by politicians and the courts. For instance, a 1921 New York Times article reported that U.S. Senator Knute Nelson blamed "organized labor and its leaders" for the industrial depression and unemployment. Other news articles of the era illustrated how courts regularly prohibited union members from picketing.

Although 100 years later our numbers are again decreasing and the composition of the Supreme Court is disquieting, to say the least, labor unions can look back on enumerable achievements.  

This reflection on the past coincides with my own personal look back at a "roaring" 20-plus years at SCCC, all as an active member of the Faculty Association. The occasion is my planned retirement this spring.

As I muse over the past, a collage of images cascades past my mind's eye. It's like flipping through a family album, filled with photos of people I love, passing acquaintances and, like every family (as explained to me early on by Kevin McCoy), a weird step-uncle or two.

I had the good fortune to find sisters and brothers at the proverbial water coolers of two campuses. Within the confines of a workday during which we were dedicated to the mission of educating students, we shared joys and grief, laughter, workplace drama and as much wisdom as we could conjure up over coffee and chocolate.

Some of those images: author readings at the Ammerman Campus, with both our local English department stars and nationally known authors; the patron-who-gave-himself-a-haircut-at-the circulation-desk; faculty/student plays at the Grant Campus; social justice outreach and taking it on the road to London with collaborator Victoria Pendzick; watching 9/11 unfold using the only means possible in those first few minutes: a BBC news broadcast picked up by an old black and white TV in my office; helping students organize a protest after the shooting in Parkland, Florida; and, among so many other memories, those associated with the FA.

One of my earliest forays into union work was as a (very quiet) member of the contract negotiating committee. Over the years, I participated in phone banks, ballot counting and, in 2011, with the guidance of Cynthia Eaton, I began writing for The WORD. In my first article, I wrote about being born under a picket sign: while my mother was in labor with me, my father was about to go on strike. (My article is on pages 8-9, and that issue of The WORD also includes photographs I took at the Occupy Wall Street protest in Manhattan, an event that seems like it was 100 years ago, not a mere ten.)

I've had the opportunity to write member profiles, thus getting to know colleagues on a deeper level, and the chance to delve into union history. I wrote about social justice heroes. I tried to promote the importance of sticking with the union and outlined the many benefits and protections we are so fortunate to receive.

I'm especially mindful now that a secure retirement is part of that, along with ongoing health insurance coverage and the option to continue to participate in the FA Benefit Fund. By the way, I highly recommend that members attend the FA's retirement seminar. It's never too early to plan, and the information provided is comprehensive and invaluable. This year's workshop is scheduled for April 17.

As my NYSTRS planning app counts down the months, I am filled with gratitude toward our union and its progenitors. Because of them, I can retire. For those of you just starting out, show your union some love: volunteer, participate and help make these 20s a roaringly successful decade.

So, hey, it's been the cat’s pajamas, and the elephant's eyebrows, and really ducky, and… I'd go on, but I gotta scram.

Peace out, and solidarity forever.