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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with George Perkel, May 27, 1986. Interview H-0281. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

A union career

This passage highlights Perkel's background and career. Motivated by his socialist background, Perkel saw unionism as a tool of social change, he explains. He moved from the Commerce Department to the National War Labor Board in 1943, a position that familiarized him with unions on a national scale. When he left the Board, he took a position with the Textile Workers Union of America, where he stayed for the next three decades, focusing on issues like collective bargaining and economic analysis.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with George Perkel, May 27, 1986. Interview H-0281. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

PATRICIA RAUB:
I wondered if you might start by telling me how you happened to start doing what you've been doing.
GEORGE PERKEL:
Well, I got into the labor field back in 1943. I was an economist in Washington, working for the Commerce Department. My interest in labor started as I grew up, as a youth, in the 1930s, concerned with the New Deal and the wave of organization that took place in the 30s. And, being a member of a family with a socialist background, I was interested in unionism as a means of social protest and social change.
PATRICIA RAUB:
Was your family from New York?
GEORGE PERKEL:
Yes—well, my parents came from Russia. They emigrated in the early part of the century, in 1910 or 20 period. In fact, before 1910. So, I was born in 1919, and unionism and socialism was a conversation topic as I grew up. And I naturally inclined toward unionism and socialism. So that's what moved me in that direction. My early employment, then, for the government was, as I say, as an economist, and I was interested in using my knowledge and abilities to promote organization of workers. So, the National War Labor Board was in its early stages of development at that time—a federal agency—and I got a job with them in 1943 as an analyst, analyzing the issues involved in labor disputes. The National War Labor Board was responsible for settling labor disputes to avoid interference with production for the war. And it also was concerned with what is known as a wage stabilization program, which was a government program related to the whole inflation-fighting and price-stabilization program to keep wages down and prices down—keep them from rising fast. So, my work as an economist for the War Labor Board, from '43 to '45 gave me a pretty broad acquaintanceship with unions and how they were operating in that period.
PATRICIA RAUB:
That must have been a fascinating job.
GEORGE PERKEL:
Yes, it was very interesting. It was very taxing, because there were these difficult problems presented of trying to find out, penetrate the enormous amount of material that was coming in from both unions and employers trying to defend their position, and, as a government employee, trying to analyze and see what the truth of the matter was. So, it was very interesting and informative and prepared me for work in the union field after the war. In 1947, I became an economist. I got a job with the Textile Workers Union of America, at their headquarters in New York, as an economist in their research department. So that gave me further opportunity to participate directly in the labor struggles of the '40s and thereafter.
PATRICIA RAUB:
So what that, then, what you were doing when you retired?
GEORGE PERKEL:
Well, I had one two-year period when I took another job working for a government agency in New York, but, other than that, from 1947 to 1979, through '79, I worked for the Union, which became the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union in 1976. I retired at the end of 1979.
PATRICIA RAUB:
That's quite a long career in the Union.
GEORGE PERKEL:
Yes. Most of it was in the research department. I started as an economist, and then I became assistant director, and then director of the department. From '63 to '76, I was director of research for the Union. And then I became interested in occupational safety and health as an issue for the Union, and I became Director of Occupational Safety and Health from '76 to my retirement.
PATRICIA RAUB:
What kinds of things were you doing research on?
GEORGE PERKEL:
Well, two areas, primarily. One was collective bargaining, that is, supporting the union's efforts to get higher wages and benefits for textile workers in collective bargaining. And that involved economic research, financial analysis, industrial economics studies. So that's one broad area of economic analysis that was used for collective bargaining purposes.
PATRICIA RAUB:
You mean you were trying to figure out, maybe, how much you thought a company could afford to raise wages and things?
GEORGE PERKEL:
That was one way of looking at it. Usually, though, it was trying to give the workers and the Union leaders as much information and analysis as to what was going on in the industry that would affect the ability of industry to pay higher wages. And, also, once a decision had been made on how much of an increase to ask in bargaining, then supporting those proposals with economic analyses, to support the Union officials and to impress the employers on what we knew about their ability to pay and to try to get them to reach an agreement. And then, during some parts of that period, arbitrations were fairly common on wage issues, and so my work consisted of representing the Union at the arbitration hearings, presenting economic analyses in support of our position and arguing the case. So that's one broad area, collective bargaining.