Publication Date

December 1, 2008

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

Many cities have a central space—the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, Trafalgar Square in London, or Times Square in New York—where crowds gather to express their commitment in times of war or in struggles for peace. Some public squares are associated with particular political views: the Piazza Navona in Rome with the 1970s feminist movement, the Haymarket in Chicago with anarchism. In New York, Union Square was the “cradle of American labor history—a perennial home to anarchists, Communists, Socialists, unionists, and assorted rabble-rousing orators,” according to the late historian and activist Debra Bernhardt. The site of America’s first Labor Day parade on September 5, 1882—a place once ringed by union halls, piano shops, and struggling left-wing publishers—Union Square has long been associated with the labor movement and was a cornerstone of radicalism in the American past.

Bernhardt persuaded the National Park Service to declare Union Square Park a national historic landmark in 1998. In 1995, the Union of Needle Trades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) commissioned artist Gregg Lefevre to work with the union and the Parks Department to develop six plaques designed to commemorate the history of Union Square and its radical past. The plaques are installed at the southwest corner of the park.

The plaques depict key moments in labor’s 20th-century battles for social justice, shorter hours, and improved working conditions and paint a powerful narrative of labor unionism and the struggle for social justice for working people and their supporters.

The Uprising of 20,000 shows young Jewish and Italian women garment workers walking the picket line in the cold winter of 1909–10, after Clara Lemlich’s militant speech at the Great Hall of Cooper Union, which is located at the corner of 4th Avenue and St. Marks Place. She urged the garment workers to stage a general strike. The plaque shows four women boldly marching as one woman holds a placard with the words “STRIKE” next to the headlines “30,000 workers protest.”

The Triangle Factory Fire plaque commemorates the fiery death of working women incarcerated in their factory on March 25, 1911. Thousands of outraged workers demonstrated in Union Square following the tragedy, stimulating the passage of 36 new labor laws, the foundation of New York State’s Industrial Code, and a higher national standard of industrial safety. (A plaque at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place honors the 146 people who died in the fire.) Then and now, immigrant workers lived, worked, and often protested around the square. In the past one heard immigrants speaking Yiddish and Italian; today one hears Spanish, Chinese, and Creole. This change is evident in the Immigrant Protest plaque portraying marchers calling for social reform with signs in a variety of languages.

Labor Culture, Labor Solidarity presents late-20th-century workers of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the hospital workers union (Local 1199) demanding welfare reforms and improved working conditions. It also illustrates cooperative housing developments sponsored by the garment unions.

Tools and Skills depicts industrial work scenes showing workers cutting fabric, sewing, ironing, and pushing racks of clothes across the street. A sixth plaque, inscribed with historical information about the square, depicts protestors gathered around a platform.

Today, Union Square remains an arena of conflict. The Union Square Community Coalition and the business-led Union Square Partnership are debating the proposed privatization of the landmark pavilion on the north end of the square through the construction of a restaurant. This makes Bernhardt’s work of “documenting the undocumented” and “celebrat[ing] the fact that ordinary people were able to express their rights to free speech and assembly on this spot” all the more urgent.

Union Square is a major subway junction and can be reached by the L, 4/5/6, or R/W/N trains. The 1/2/3 and B/D/F/V trains go to 14th Street (and 6th and 7th Avenues respectively), from which one can take the L train east one stop to Union Square. For further information, see

Timothy C. Coogan, an associate professor of history at LaGuardia Community College, CUNY, has published numerous articles in labor history and teaches about the history of New York. He is a member of the Local Arrangements Committee.