Early September means one special thing: back to school shopping. Anyone who wears an article of clothing with an Ohrbach's label to this month's MAGIC GARDEN will get a free drink. You know your mom had an Ohrbach's caftan. Wear it.
Ohrbach's was a low-priced clothing store that opened in 1923 in Union Square. The owner, Viennese born Nathan Ohrbach, made his riches by offering minimal sales service, and he didn't deliver, wrap, or do alterations. If a customer found an item elsewhere for cheaper, he'd refund the money and also give 10% of the competitor's selling price. The store eventually moved to 5 West 34th Street and did a whopping annual business of $30 million. It later specialized in inexpensive knockoffs of European designer clothes. Oooh la la. Ohrbach's ceased operations in 1987 and I remember buying a pair of red pajamas with a Reindeer design right before it closed. Ohbach's is in no way related to Law & Order's Jerry Orbach, who was born in the Bronx and starred in the original production of "The Fantasticks." He sang "Try to Remember" in the longest running musical in the world 41 years at the Sullivan Street Playhouse (closed in May 2001 after 16,875 performances).
But wait, September also means Labor Day. On Tuesday, September 5, 1882, about 30,000 union workers marched from City Hall to Union Square in the city's first Labor Day parade, fighting for an eight hour workday. At that time, the average American was working 12-hour days, seven days a week and employers were free to increase hours, slash wages and fire at will. Sounds like my current job. In 1882 the Central Labor Union was formed and within months, included 56 unions representing 80,000 workers.
The first parades were actually protest rallies. I wonder if the protestors were arrested and treated like savages, as they were during last week's Republican National Convention. I digress. (By the way, if you're not registered to vote, please register here's a site: http://www.rockthevote.com). The marchers held signs reading "To the Workers Should Belong All Wealth," "Don't Smoke Cigars Without the Union Label," and "Stop Mad Cowboy Disease" oh wait, that was a sign at last week's march.
The second Labor Day drew even more participants and in 1884 the Central Labor Union officially designated the first Monday in September as the day of the Labor Day parade. By 1887 five states, including New York, made Labor Day a state holiday. Seven years later, in 1894, President Grover Cleveland established Labor Day as a federal holiday. But here's why ?
In May 1894, workers of the Pullman railroad sleeping car company went on strike. Pullman, Illinois was founded in 1880 by George Pullman, who designed and built the town as a utopian worker's community (Stepford?). The town was organized with row houses for the assembly and craft workers, Victorian houses for the managers, and a fancy hotel for Pullman. All residents worked for the Pullman company paid from the Pullman bank, rent automatically deducted from weekly paychecks. Everything was fine and dandy for more than a decade, but in 1893, the company was forced to lay off hundreds of employees. Those who remained endured pay cuts, while rents in Pullman stayed the same. And so the employees walked out, demanding lower rents and higher pay. The American Railway Union came to the cause of the striking workers, and over 50,000 railroad workers across the nation boycotted trains carrying Pullman cars. Rioting, pillaging, and burning of railroad cars ensued and mobs of non-union workers joined in.
President Grover Cleveland, fearful of railroad executives and interrupted mail trains, declared the strike a federal crime and sent 12,000 troops to break it up. On August 3, 1894, the strike was declared over, the American Railway Union disbanded, and Pullman employees signed a pledge that they would never again unionize. Damn. People were angered by Cleveland's harsh methods so Cleveland thought this could be a good opportunity to win over the people before the presidential election a few months later. Six days after the strike ended, he designated the first Monday in September as Labor Day. Yippeee!!!! But he was not reelected. Too little too late. More about Grover Cleveland in another history lesson. Okay, just a teaser: you might know that Nestle's Baby Ruth candy bar was named after Cleveland's baby daughter, Ruth, but did you know there are approximately 420 pieces of crisped rice in a regular size Nestle Crunch bar?
Now back to discount shopping and labor issues a perfect combo.
Poorly paid, overworked, mostly immigrant women retail workers began forming unions in 1934. That year, Klein's store fired 87 members of the communist-led Office Workers Union (OWU), and approximately 100 workers under OWU leadership had already gone on strike against Ohrbach's, which employed about 1400 workers. Ohrbach's workers demanded a pay raise, a 40-hour workweek and an end to discrimination for union activity.
Encouraged by the Ohrbach's workers' strike, the laid-off Klein's workers began their own strike. The State Supreme Court granted Ohrbach's an anti-picketing injunction, allowing police to arrest those strikers who attempted to form a mass picket line and block customers' entrance to the stores.
They employed a number of tactics to get people to stop shopping at the two stores. Most Saturdays, the strikers held a theme rally in Union Square. On Theatrical Day, the entire cast of an off-Broadway play came down to the picket line, got arrested for breaking the injunction, and the play's performance that night was canceled. At the time there was a large statue of Washington in Union Square; the strikers placed a poster reading "Don't Buy At Ohrbach's," on the statue's outstretched arm. Workers did some funny things, like letting loose a big box of mice in Klein's to frighten shoppers. Strikers at Ohrbach's gave children who were entering the store balloons that said "Don't Buy At Ohrbach's!" When the children went into the store, the managers would have to take the balloons away, causing the children to scream and cry and leading to loud arguments between store managers and the parents. Apparently people were afraid to go into the store, because they didn't know what the screaming was all about.
The most significant event of the strike was at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel during a dinner to honor senior doctors at Brooklyn Hospital. Since he was on the hospital's Board of Trustees, Nathan Ohrbach, owner of Ohrbach's, was invited to sit at the dinner, along with Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Some doctors, who were sympathetic toward the strikers, got tickets for a bunch of them (think of the protestors that gained entry in the Republican National Convention). As LaGuardia began to speak of the important work done by Ohrbach, a striker called out, "I am an Ohrbach striker." Then another said "Nathan Ohrbach may give thousands to charity, but he doesn't pay his workers a living wage." Both women had chained themselves to the balcony. Another striker distributed flyers about the strike to the audience. The newspapers wrote about the actions of the strikers, and not Nathan Ohrbach's charitable donations. And all of this had also been broadcast on live radio.
The Waldorf incident gave the union a small victory. In the early spring of 1935, managers at both stores offered to hire back the strikers. Klein's managers offered workers reinstatement and back pay; Ohrbach refused to grant strikers the raise they demanded, but did guarantee a shorter working day. But, within weeks, managers at both stores began firing workers who had participated in the strikes. Most workers, having survived for five months with no income during some of the worst years of the Great Depression, decided not to return to the picket line, though about 20 Ohrbach's workers did go back on strike, and eventually won a negotiated written settlement.
Labor Day is observed as a legal holiday on the first Monday in September throughout the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada. In Australia, Labor Day is called Eight Hour Day. In Europe, Labor Day is observed on May 1, and is known as May Day.
And now, for a labor of love. The MAGIC GARDEN's Be Nice Campaign supports a different cause/charity/fund each month. You will have the opportunity, if you so desire, to contribute to Sprout. Founded in 1979, Sprout is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping individuals with developmental disabilities and mental retardation grow through travel. Sprout serves over 1800 people with special needs per year. Participants take trips lasting up to a week long; typically, group size is 10 participants and 3 leaders. Every summer, Sprout hosts Sproutstock, a music festival upstate that attracts upwards of 200 Sprout participants. Sprout also runs many NYC evening or afternoon excursions, so if you're interested in getting involved, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. http://www.gosprout.org.
When you donate, you
will not only be supporting a worthy cause, but you will also have a chance
to win fabulous prizes. This month's fund brought to you by Avra Kouffman