Phila.'s place in labor history A cemetery stroll highlights workplace changes over the years.

Posted: September 07, 2009

Ronn Shaffer is not an authority on the history of labor, and he's never belonged to a union. But the 71-year-old semiretired businessman does know a thing or two about the landmark 1806 trial, Commonwealth v. George Pullis, et al., in which a band of brazen shoemakers who organized to demand higher wages were convicted of criminal conspiracy.

He also has a great story about the time he wrote a letter to Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley in the 1970s and how he learned the power of treating union workers with respect.

FOR THE RECORD - CLEARING THE RECORD, PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER 8, 2009, FOLLOWS: A story yesterday on Philadelphia's place in labor history misidentified the artificial leather developed by the DuPont Co. in the mid-1960s and known as Corfam.

So he's as good a guide as any to give a Labor Day tour of the 18th-century Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church graveyard at Fourth and Pine, where several noted tradesmen and a key figure in American labor history are buried.

Before he begins, though, it seems reasonable to ask why anyone other than a cynic would want to tour a cemetery like this on this, the nation's 128th Labor Day, with the economy in an open grave and 216,000 jobs dearly departed in August alone.

Shaffer has two answers.

"The meaning of Labor Day has been forgotten. It's become just the last three-day weekend of summer," he says. American workers deserve to be honored, he says, and, despite the current economic slump, to celebrate how far we've come since the days of indentured servitude.

Also, the church needs money.

"Philadelphia was an industrial powerhouse," producing trains, armaments, textiles, and chemicals, he says. And as the city's workers toiled in factories, the skies wept acid tears that have destroyed the marble gravestones. The roots of trees planted by the congregation 100 years ago have kicked out the iron fence along Pine Street.

"We need to raise $800,000 for repairs," he says.

So even though the 4 p.m. tour, open to the public, will be free, "donations," he says, "will be greatly appreciated." Having confessed his ulterior motive, Shaffer is now free to talk about the graves.

Here is James Traquair, the stone cutter George Washington hired to build a marble fireplace mantle for his house on Germantown Avenue. And here is Henry Connelly, one of the most famous American cabinetmakers in the early 19th century.

And here, here is the guest of honor.

"Jared Ingersoll is the man," Shaffer says, stopping beside a gray slab resting two feet above the grass on a brick foundation.

Ingersoll, a delegate to the Continental Congress, signed the Constitution, served as attorney general, and ran for vice president. He earned his place on the Labor Day tour, says Shaffer, for his role in the famous Cordwainer Conspiracy.

Cordwainers, he explains, made shoes and boots from new leather. "Have you ever heard of cordovan? Dupont once tried to develop an imitation leather. They called it cordovan. It came from the medieval term cordova, a special leather from Spain." He apologizes for wandering off point. White-haired and sunburned with clear blue eyes and a country gentleman's carriage, Shaffer can't resist sharing the shiny nuggets of history he's unearthed in his research.

Back to Ingersoll. "The master cordwainers determined the wages of the journeymen," he says. "And a lightbulb must have gone off in some journeyman's head. Why can't we negotiate our wages?" A group of the journeymen, or apprentices, confronted their bosses, threatening to stop work if they weren't paid more. The bosses, miffed, charged the journeymen with conspiracy.

Ingersoll argued for the prosecution. "The judge and jury were unsympathetic to labor," Shaffer says. Ingersoll won the case, but it emboldened workers to challenge the system and is now regarded, he says, as one of the first important legal battles that would lead, more than 100 years later, to workers' right to organize.

Shaffer takes a seat on a monument in the shade, lays his canvas tote from the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the marble slab, and pulls out two small books, reproductions.

"This one," he says, "this was produced by the Carpenters Company of the City and County of Philadelphia." It was the most prestigious of the trade groups. Seven members of the company are interred here.

"The book was used to estimate material and labor costs in 1786," he says, giving the colonial blue hardbound cover an affectionate pat.

The other volume is a replica of the pamphlet that master cabinetmakers used to determine how much to charge for furniture, depending on the kind of wood and the design's complexity.

"It was really a kind of price fixing," he says, reading the pages with a trace of conspiratorial glee.

He understands, he says, that not everyone finds this stuff as scintillating as he does, but he believes the adage about knowing your history to avoid repeating your mistakes.

The son of a miller from upstate Pennsylvania, Shaffer went to art school and made his living designing exhibits for museums and industrial trade shows.

This is how he came to write to Mayor Daley.

It was in the early 1970s. He was setting up an exhibit for RCA in Chicago. The city's unions had a daunting reputation.

"I was scared I would have to bribe everyone," he recalls. "And I knew that union people determined the success of getting it done. So I'd always sit down with the reps for coffee and show them a scale model of what I wanted them to do." He made a point of getting to know every worker on the job, and when they finished, he wrote a letter to Daley, commending each of them by name.

"The next time I went to Chicago, I couldn't believe it. People were clamoring to work with me," he says. "It taught me that when you treat labor with respect, they'll do a wonderful job for you."

A guided tour focusing on the 18th-century trade groups that preceded the labor movement and the prominent members of these groups buried in this historic cemetery is available. Admission, free. Donations accepted.

Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

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