Monday, September 5, 2022

Considering the Newsboys


Thanks to the Disney movie and musical, many of us know the story of the newsboys strike of 1899. 

Newsies…was inspired by a real-life event: the strike of newsboys against Joseph Pulitzer and other publishers who tried to take more than their fair share of the young workers' earnings. (

We root for the young people who are truly living on pennies. Many were orphans. Few were over the age of twenty. I have yet to meet anyone who came away from this show rooting for Joseph Pulitzer. Have you?

It seems appropriate to consider those newsboys today. 

Labor Day is a federal holiday in the United States celebrated on the first Monday in September to honor and recognize the American labor movement and the works and contributions of laborers to the development and achievements of the United States. (Wikipedia)

Labor unions are seeing a resurgence in our country right now, and with good reason. Remember, those newsboys achieved their goals because they organized. The coordination of their efforts was the only power they had in the face of a wealthy and powerful adversary. The same is true in 2022. The industries where you see the proliferation of unions today are ones where employees have been at the mercy of powerful employers and have been given little opportunity for redress. 

Do we root for them the way we root for the Newsies? Some of us, maybe. I wrote several pieces during the height of the pandemic about how restaurant workers were being painted by employers and in the press. You know, stories like “Maryland Restaurant Owners Can’t Get Workers to Return Because They Get More in Unemployment”

I continue to be enraged by the attitude that “affluent people like us” are naturally responsible and trustworthy, while low-wage workers are treated like bad children. 

When the Howard County Council was contemplating legislation that would require local businesses like Merriweather Lakehouse to recall the (unionized) workers that they had laid off before hiring new (non-union) ones, those kinds of attitudes were sadly on display, even among members of the Council. It was largely a discussion amongst “affluent people like us” to decide how much justice “those people” deserved.

A great deal of time and consideration was given to representatives of management. The Council bent over backwards to make the bill something that “businesses could live with.” In fact, they added a special exception for establishments who employed third-party businesses to do their hiring. 

So that’s exactly what Merriweather Lakehouse did. They hired contractors to do their hiring and they still didn’t rehire the laid off workers. It’s called union-busting, and it’s both ugly and illegal. Whether intentionally or unwittingly, the Howard County Council helped them do that. Perhaps the laws as they stand allowed them to do little else. 

I would feel somewhat better about this if so much of the conversation around the legislation hadn’t reinforced that notion that affluent people (like us) are naturally responsible and trustworthy, while low wage workers (them) were treated like bad children. It left a bad taste in my mouth.

Merriweather Lakehouse very likely hopes this whole story will go away. They didn’t make the choice to honor their workers simply when it was the right thing to do, and they didn’t do it even when under pressure from the community and the County Council. They have a very lovely restaurant and they’d like you to come dine there and tell your friends.

No thanks.

Who will you root for? The Newsies?

More than 100 employees, including housekeepers, banquet workers and cooks, many of whom are members of Unite Here Local 7, a labor union representing workers in Baltimore’s hospitality industry, were laid off when the hotel closed. None were recalled back to their positions for the reopening, according to Tracy Lingo, staff director for the union. (Baltimore Sun)

Or Pulitzer?

Ownership of Merriweather Lakehouse received two U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program loans for a total of $2.5 million, for the purpose of helping with payroll and preserving jobs. Workers did not see any of that money nor were their jobs preserved. (Village Green/Town²)

I don’t know how many people in Columbia/HoCo will be giving serious thought to the origins of Labor Day today. Most of us enjoy an extra day of leisure with picnics or parties or a last day at the beach. I have a little suggestion for you. As you consider restaurants, or hotels, or other businesses you want to patronize this year, give some thought to how they treat their workers. Don’t give your money to businesses who trample on the worth and dignity of human beings.

Would we still cheer on those newsboys today if it meant a bit of inconvenience or a slightly higher price to us? Or is that something we care about only if it comes with singing and dancing?

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