Tuesday, October 22, 2013

How an artist who stands with Teamsters sat in Hoffa's chair

UPDATES to clarify Bowers is not from New York.

An artist who stood with Teamsters in our battle against the Frieze New York Art Fair seized an opportunity to sit in Jimmy Hoffa's chair on a recent trip to Detroit. 

Andrea Bowers openly protested at the Frieze New York Art Fair in May when the show refused to hire local Teamsters at fair wages. She and fellow artist Olga Koumoundouros drove their latest art installation across the country, visiting historic labor sites along the way. Bowers, a former member of the American Federation of Teachers, focuses much of her artwork on the struggle for workers' rights. That's why Bowers was blown away by the chance to sit in the former Teamster leader's chair at Teamsters Local 299. Said Bowers:
It was a rare and amazing opportunity. That room was beautiful.  The whole office was preserved.
At Teamsters Local 299, in Jimmy Hoffa's chair
Shawn Ellis, an International Brotherhood of Teamsters staff member who introduced the artists to Detroit's labor history, said Andrea's smile was a mile wide when she sat in Jimmy Hoffa's chair. 

At the invitation of Joint Council 43 President Greg Nowak, Bowers and Koumoundouros also visited "Transcending," a memorial in downtown Detroit dedicated to the Michigan labor movement.

They also attended a MichiganLabor History Society meeting on the Woolworth strike -- and gave a report on the successful effort to raise the labor standards for art fairs and other events in New York's public parks.

“We actually took notes,” said Bowers.  “It was so rewarding to meet these amazing union members concerned about labor history.  We wanted to stay another week.”

The 1937 Detroit Woolworth strike ignited worker activism across the country during the Great Depression.  It was started by a bunch of teenage and early-20-something women, at a company so huge, “it was like striking Wal-Mart, the Gap, and McDonald’s all at the same time.” The protest improved the jobs of tens of thousands of workers:

On Feb. 27, more than 100 young women workers at (a) Woolworth store demanded raises, time and a half for more than 40 hours, company pay for uniforms, lunch allowances, breaks, (union) recognition and hiring only through the union. The union had only one staff person there.  
The effects of the strike rippled for a year.  In Detroit itself, sit-downs spread among thousands of local workers, from waitresses to kitchen workers to cafeteria, hotel, and factory workers. By year’s end, chain variety stores, grocery and department stores had been organized in St. Paul and Duluth, Minn.; Tacoma and Centralia, Wash.; Superior, Wis.; and San Francisco.
“(The whole trip) was just moving,” said Koumoundouros.  “It was so amazing to see labor history alive.”