Monday, June 28, 2010

Division Street: America by Studs Terkel (New Press 1967)

I think the poor class of people, both Negro and white, as bad as I hate to say this, being a union man, I believe they've forgotten a lot of these things. In those days, if you had a car transfer, nobody threw away a transfer. They would put it where somebody else could get it. Nobody threw away a cigarette butt. It was awful hard to find a cigarette, but if a guy had one, he would choke it and give it to the next guy. Everybody was very friendly at that time.

Today, based on the war economy and the unions, some people make a few dollars, and the feeling, the atmosphere is different. Labor's respectable now, it's status quo. If you fight against these guys, you're labeled. Fear. A lot of fellas want to know how come George Meany don't walk together with Martin Luther King, you know, in these demonstrations. We evade the question. (Laughs.)

There was a meeting downtown where all the business agents were, labor leaders. I thought they were gonna pull Mayor Daley's pants down and kiss him. These guys go overboard. And they were raising a question of why we wasn't organizin' more. Why there wasn't more than five Negroes out of two, three hundred guys! So I finally got up enough courage to get the floor. (Laughs.)

So I told 'em, "Looking around the room here, you guys got all diamond rings, manicures." Honest, I didn't know Bill Lee* had a telephone in his Mark IV, air-conditioned, chauffeur, everything. (Laughs.) And I said, "The image of so-called labor leaders is not what it was in the old days. Now you can't tell 'em from a businessman." So they accepted the criticism. ('Lew Gibson' speaking to Studs Terkel about the contrast between the hungry thirties and the prosperous sixties.)

* Bill Lee was the President of the Chicago Federation of Labor at the time.

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