December 12, 2017

Labor pioneer Kate Mullany continues to inspire today's labor heroes

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
labor awards
Caption: The Mullany medal is “almost an overwhelming honor," said United University Professions president Fred Kowal (right). "I’m going to treat it as a challenge to do more.” Kowal was presented the award by ALSC Director Paul Cole (left). Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

Rebel labor leader and laundress Kate Mullany jeopardized her job and her family’s sole income in 1864 by walking into the frigid February weather on strike for better wages and working conditions. Her hands, raw from scorching laundry work, held picket signs in the falling snow. By forming the country’s first bonafide women’s union, she left a lot for today’s labor leaders to honor, and they did so last night at the annual American Labor Studies Center recognition reception.

Not long into the ceremony, it became apparent what Mullany has in common with 21st century roofers, contractors, sheet metal workers, architects, a U.S. Senator, and the president of the nation’s largest higher education union — all of whom were honored by ALSC Director Paul Cole before a crowd of 100 labor leaders.

At the core of their work is a belief that change is possible, coupled with doggedness to do better for the working class. Honored were U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand; United University Professions President Fred Kowal; Alison Cahill Henderson, president of the woman-owned Duncan & Cahill restoration company; Fred Pazmino, president, Titan Roofing, Inc; Michael Rossi, Roofers Local 241; and Frank Maguire, Sheet Metal Workers Local 83.

American Labor Studies Ceremony

Fred Kowal, president of United University Professions since 2013, was draped with a Mullany medal, which he said was “almost an overwhelming honor. I’m going to treat it as a challenge to do more.”

As president of the higher education union of faculty and professional staff at State University of New York campuses, Kowal knows first-hand the hostility of the White House, the Supreme Court and Congress toward labor. But those before us, he said, including laundry workers, mine workers and mill workers — “they faced organized, state-sponsored terrorism.” Their lives and their family’s lives were on the line as they sought to improve dangerous working conditions and earn a living wage.

As a longtime political science professor, prior to becoming UUP’s leader, Kowal incorporated labor history into his curriculum. The ALSC’s mission is to see labor history woven into lessons for students of all ages. Lesson plans for K-12 are available at www.labor-studies.org, along with films, photos, documents, labor songs, primary sources and union history.

Kowal has also learned from his parents, who came from Poland and worked as unionized mill workers. He said this award would spur efforts to continue to mobilize and organize in the face of anti-union sentiment rising to the level of Supreme Court cases.

“We must and we shall overcome,” Kowal said. “We walk in the footsteps of giants.”

“This is a time for us to really be aware of what’s happening and watch the landscape across the country,” said NYSUT Second Vice President Paul Pecorale, who serves as chair of the ALSC Board of Directors.

Mullany’s footsteps are further memorialized in the Kate Mullany House in Troy, which is being restored and scheduled to open formally in 2018. It is a National Historic Site, “the only one in 91 National Historic sites that has a focus and a theme on labor, women and immigrant history,” said Cole, who has devoted 25 years to research and restoration of Mullany’s history and her home. The revival wouldn’t be possible without grants and volunteer labor by professionals in the trades, including carpenters and painters.

In a written letter, Sen. Gillibrand said that Mullany set an example that still applies today.

“She blazed a trail for others to follow,” she said, including fighting for women’s rights.

Henderson, president of the woman-owned Duncan & Cahill restoration company, said she admired how Mullany managed to get several hundred women to go on strike with her in such tough times. She noted that after the strike, Mullany kept the Collar Laundry Union financially solvent. In accepting her award, Henderson was proud to say that by restoring the Troy historic home, “I’ve actually walked in the footsteps of Kate Mullany.”

Titan Roofers, whose employees also worked on the roof of the state Capitol and restored the skylight there, were honored last night for their volunteer efforts on the Mullany House roof, which served as in-kind contribution to help receive matching fund grants. Roofers Local 241 and Sheet Metal Local 83 members installed the new roof on the house. Sheet Metal Workers Local 83 did the sheet metal work for the roof.

Mullany’s house is being restored to its original condition for the family’s living conditions on the third floor. Restoration has to meet standards of the New York State Historic Preservation Office and National Park Service.

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