By James Maher
Name: Merle Ratner
Occupation: Labor Rights Organizer at the International Commission for Labor Rights
Location: Avenue A Between 3rd Street and 4th Street
Date: Thursday, March 2 at 3 p.m.
I’m from the Bronx. I lived here in the early 1980s ... I moved back here about 30-something years ago because I wanted to live in a multiracial, working-class neighborhood.
It was not gentrified like it is now. There were a lot more working-class and poor people, and not as many restaurants. There were also not so many vacant stores. Every store was filled — there were more mom-and-pop places. I liked Bernstein’s on Essex. It was a kosher deli with Chinese waiters. They had the best pastrami. It was an interesting place.
Then and now it has been a politically active area – anti-gentrification struggles later, always anti-war struggles, anti-racism struggles, and LGBT struggles. It’s a traditionally immigrant area, from here down to the whole Lower East Side. It’s where my grandparents came when they came from Odessa in the early part of the 20th Century.
It’s a very diverse community culturally and politically – it’s very progressive. I went to the rally against Trump here in Tompkins Square Park, and every time there’s a demonstration in Washington or New York there’s a huge contingent from this area that go. So I like to be among working-class people, although that’s changing a little bit. But the projects are here. They’re not going anywhere. We’re going to fight to keep them here. It’s a neighborhood where I feel comfortable.
There’s also a long tradition with the labor movement. A lot of labor activists have been active here and still stay here, and Trump is trying to kill the labor movement. That’s a particular struggle, for unions and labor rights. I think that if we don’t organize as workers and fight, not only for labor union rights but for a different society, an alternative to capitalism, we’re all going to go down.
I work for the International Commission for Labor Rights, but I’m also on the board at the Laundry Workers Center, which organizes low-wage immigrant laundry and food service workers, and has a big struggle with B&H Photo Video, which is trying to move a lot of the jobs of the Union-organized shop to New Jersey. So that’s an important struggle.
My family has a history — my grandmother, when she came from Odessa, was the first woman business agent at the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, and my mother was a member of Local 1707 Day Care Workers. I have a picture in my house of my grandmother, it must have been in the 1920s, with a long skirt with a bustle, the very traditional thing that women wore, holding a picket sign with her friend that said, ‘Don’t be a scab.’
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.