Cambridge Historical Society Annual Meeting

Cambridge Historical Society Annual Meeting

Elections and a history lesson

Photos: 1) CHS President Tod Beaty
2) Speakers Ed Childs (left), Shaun Nichols (right)
3) Novartis 2012 construction on Massachusetts Avenue

“How does it feel to be a member of one of the most revolutionary historical societies in the United States?”

The tongue-in-cheek question, posed by Executive Director Marieka Van Damme at the Cambridge Historical Society’s annual meeting on March 22, highlights the organization’s long view, extending back to early times in New England. The society itself is no johnny-come-lately; it was established in 1905 and is headquartered in Hooper-Lee-Nichols house at 159 Brattle Street, the second-oldest house in Cambridge.

The organization took some steps into the future during the event, which took place at the Main Library, 449 Broadway. Changes agreed upon by members include expansion of the governing council from eight members to fourteen, plans to update the organization’s website, and creation of a new logo symbolizing the city’s contemporary vision as well as its long history.

President Tod Beaty (Photo 1) remains in office along with Vice Presidents Elizabeth Adams-Lasser, Charlie Allen, and Doug Hanna; Treasurer Greg Bowe; Curator Heli Meltsner; and Editor Bruce Irving. An eighth council member, Secretary Frank Kramer, announced his retirement; that position was filled by Doug Brown, who was elected in an uncontested vote along with six more new members: Constantine (Gus) Alexander, Christina DeYoung, Heidi Gitelman, Jonathan Muniz, Samantha Crowell Richard, and Ed Rodley.

The evening’s program was titled “The making (and re-making) of the Cambridge economy.” It featured two speakers (Photo 2):
-- Dr. Shaun Nichols, College Fellow in History at Harvard. Capitalism, immigration, and labor in the United States and the world are the focus of his research and teaching.
-- Ed Childs, Chief Steward of Unite Here Local 26, the union that represents Harvard University Dining Services employees. The union, which started up in the 1930s, has mounted numerous protests and demonstrations with health care and minimum wage agreements as enduring goals.

Dr. Nichols began his presentation with an account of area industrial development (Photo 3) from the 19th century onward and the course of capital/labor relations in the resulting two-tiered economy. He noted the importance of the universities in the wave of emerging industry and industrialization, followed by periods of failure and retrenchment.

“Nostalgia for industry is really nostalgia for a by-gone political economy,” he said. Instead of trying to bring it back, he proposed spending more time fighting for the political and economic arrangements that have made industrial work worthwhile.

Nichols introduced Ed Childs, long-time leader of the labor movement among Harvard workers. Childs discussed the long-running confrontation between campus workers and the Harvard administration, which came to popular attention with “Occupation,” a film focused on the 3-week occupation of Massachusetts Hall.

According to Childs, conflicts have centered on health-care benefits and also wages. Over the years a powerful union with international ties has developed, and its links to the apartheid movement in South Africa ultimately led to Harvard’s divestment of its interests there.

“We created our own foreign policy,” Childs said. The organization also connected with workers in Caribbean, leading him to meet with Fidel Castro.

A question from the floor noted differences between welfare state effects in Europe and in the US. The exchanges also included a discussion of benefits and economic problems associated with the growing use of robots.