James Manning, Labor Lawyer

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By Carly Loy

As James Manning, aged 86, sat in his chair in the Bronx Documentary Center on Courtlandt Avenue in the South Bronx, he was surrounded by “what was.”

As a child, he had lived not too far away from this non-profit gallery. When his parents immigrated from Ireland in the early 1900s, the neighborhood was a collection of people whose homes were across the ocean. His mother immigrated when she was 14 years old. As a new resident of New York City and the United States in general, her first task was to find her way to Brooklyn to see her uncle who was to assist her in finding a job. His father was in the army. His parents met on Governors Island and later resided in the South Bronx. Manning spoke of his neighborhood being on the poorer side, but everyone just thought that’s the way it was. Since everyone was in the same situation, they did not view themselves as lesser. Everyone was poor so no one was poor.

With a background of education at Manhattan college, Fordham Law, and 14 years in the National Guard, Manning became a lawyer. He first represented management, but in 1971 found that his passion lay with representing unions.

Through the eyes of a labor lawyer, he experienced the rise and cresting of the American union movement. In the height of unions, people bound together to create real changes. Among the unions he represented were the Sandhogs, the people responsible for building the tunnels in New York City — a very dangerous job.

He also represented 32BJ, a large union of property service workers such as doormen and maintenance workers. He credited his representation of 32BJ for equal pay as his most difficult negotiation.

Today, he said, people are not as easy to get united. Workers are making minimum wages with little benefits and the people in charge are making much more money than they controversially should. Manning thinks this is a problem of morality because the little pay the workers are making is not enough to make a living or have a retirement.

The future of the job market is disconcerting according to Manning. Without the help of unions, bridging the gap between the workers and the elite positions will be difficult to do. In his opinion, the presidential candidates do not know what they are talking about with labor and work. The Bernie Sanders fan sees this as another obstacle that is going to set back current and future people in the workforce. However, with Manning’s daughter following in his footsteps career-wise, there may be hope for current and future employees.

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