What drove him all those years, he said, was a constant search for fairness.
A son of Irish workers, James Manning somehow broke out of the neighborhood in the Bronx and made it through law school and into a firm representing corporations settling labor issues. But it did not hold.
In 1971, Manning said he found that his sympathies lay with the workers, and thus began a decades-long association with unions that unified as 32BJ and a sense of taking on management.
Over time, he represented sandhogs who built subways and tunnels, and those who did maintenance, took care of buildings, washed windows and did the cleaning.
He has started his life in the South Bronx in a neighborhood that “was on the poorer side. But everyone was poor, so it never felt like we were poor.” His parents had immigrated from Ireland in the early 1900s, and so had everyone else’s parents in the area. They were not all from Ireland, of course, but he learned early how to mix.
His mother had been 14 when she came to the United States, and she knew she had to find a job straightaway. His father was in the army. His parents met on Governors Island and later lived in the South Bronx.
So Manning understood working hard. He attended Manhattan college and then Fordham Law, and, along with 14 years service in the National Guard, Manning became a lawyer.
Through the eyes of a labor lawyer, he experienced the rise and cresting of the American union movement. In the height of unions, he said, 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 two unions that eventually merged as 32BJ, a large union of property service workers such as doormen and maintenance workers.
Manning recalled that there was one union representing men and another women. He found that he could succeed at getting the men, who worked outside, washing windows, more money, but could not get the same wage for the women cleaning inside those same buildings. “They could see each other, but they couldn’t make the same pay.” He described it as his most difficult negotiation, though over time, the two groups became 32BJ and did continue the fight for equal pay.
Those years taught him that getting management and labor on the same page was extremely important, but that it was possible to find shared interests. People did talk with one another. By contrast, he said today, such negotiations are far more difficult.
Workers are making minimum wages with little benefits and the people in charge are making much more money than they should. Manning described it as 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.
–Terry Schwadron and Carly Loy