8/6/07

Will strike if provoked

"Look for the union label," urged the anthem of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, calling on consumers to buy only clothes with a tag certifying the item was made by union members. Look for the union logo could be the slogan of "The Shirts Off Our Back," an exhibit on display at the American Labor Museum/Botto House National Landmark in Haledon.

Scores of emblems, insignia, mottos and designs can be found in the collection of union T-shirts that have been sewn into quilts and hung on the second-floor of the museum. Black T-shirts from Teamsters Union locals are blazoned with heavy trucks, spread-winged eagles and cobras coiled under the warning "Will Strike If Provoked!"

"Worthy Wages for Worthy Work," reads a T-shirt from the United Federation of Teachers.

Turning union T-shirts into quilts was the brainchild of the museum's director, Angelica Santomauro, who put out a call to unions to send the museum a T-shirt and a $100 donation, part of which paid for the stitching.

Unions from as near as Haledon and far as California sent shirts, said Evelyn Hershey, the museum's education director. Each time the museum collects another 15 to 18 T-shirts, they box them up and send them to Michigan quilt-maker Andrea T. Funk, who runs a business stitching T-shirts together and has written a book about turning T-shirts into quilts.

Funk, who once belonged to the AFL-CIO as a clerical worker and began making T-shirt quilts about 15 years ago, said in a telephone interview that working on the T-shirt quilts gave her exposure to an array of unions beyond the auto workers who have a major presence in her home state.

"Unions are part of the fabric of Michigan," Funk said, "but I didn't realize how many different types of unions there were."

T-shirts, long worn as undergarments, did not become popular outerwear until the late 1960s, Hershey said. Unions, which had once distributed lapel pins and ribbons to workers to denote membership, began to use T-shirts for conventions and rallies.

The slogans and logos helped educate those not familiar with the labor movement or some of its achievements: laws prohibiting child labor, and others that created the eight-hour workday and the weekend.

The T-shirts are "sound bites on a chest and back," Hershey said.

One example, a T-shirt from UNITE, a descendent of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, contains a laundry list of bargaining points. "Let's talk about ... workplace injuries ... inadequate pensions ... two-tier benefits ... substandard wages," it reads. "It's about us and our families! We deserve better! UNITE!"

Hershey, who runs museum programs for schoolchildren, said the variety of T-shirts in the quilts offer "an easy way to introduce them to all the different kinds of workers who are in unions."

One room of the exhibit displays several quilts made by local schoolchildren, who created patches of felt depicting various labor unions, including those of police and teachers. Nine-year-old Kade Skelton, a soon-to-be-fifth-grader at St. Gerard's School in Paterson, made a patch that contains a railroad car and the sentence "The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Stands for Service Not Servitude." The union, formed in 1925, was the nation's first union of African-American workers, Hershey said.

The exhibit, at 83 Norwood Ave. in Haledon, will remain on display until December, and unions may continue to send in shirts.

Those in the exhibit express solidarity, defiance, patriotism and occasionally, humor.

"My Job Went Overseas and All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt" reads a shirt from the AFL-CIO.

All T-shirts in the exhibit have the union label.

(northjersey.com)

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