The 20th anniversary paperback edition of Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives—A Pictorial History of Working People in New York City reveals a highly personal view of the economic and cultural context of work in twentieth century New York City. Authors Rachel Bernstein and the late Debra Bernhardt tell the critical stories of organized labor’s contributions to NYC over the course of the 20th century (warts and all) as part of the larger history. The beautiful, accessible format uses resonant images (and careful captions) to tell a good bit of the story, characters emerge in the photos, most by labor photographers, and the substantial excerpts from oral history interviews.

Virtual Event

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives

The extraordinary efforts of ordinary people are visible during this pandemic as never before.


A virtual panel discussion was held on May 14 with young workers about documenting working people’s lives and celebrating the new edition.


Author Rachel Bernstein was joined by Alexander Bernhardt Bloom, Commissioner Pauline Toole, Manhattan Borough Historian Rob Snyder, former head of the New York City Central Labor Council Ed Ott, organizer Myriam Hernandez, construction worker Shi Greene, electrician Shauna Irving, teacher Donna Chin, and multidisciplinary artist Rachel Kara Perez. There is a recording of the event here.


Visit the NYC Municipal Archives exhibit, featuring historical photos and photos from the young panelists here.

Presented by:  

LaborArts; New York Labor History Association; NYU’s Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives; NYC Department of Records and Information Services, Municipal Archives; and the New York City Central Labor Council

Explore powerful photographs from

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives

1. Brooklyn Bridge with painters posing on suspenders, 1914

Archivist Katie Kirwan discovered this extraordinary photograph among thousands of routine images taken to document the completion of municipal contracts. We now know it was taken by Eugene de Salignac, who shot over twenty thousand photos during his almost thirty years as the only photographer at the municipal Department of Bridges/Plant and Structures. From the New York City Municipal Archives.

2. Workers’ lunch break at Warbasse Houses, Manhattan, 1963

We don’t know what these workers are talking about, but the date and the African-American man sitting to the side evokes the early 1960s efforts of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) to overcome discrimination in the construction unions. From the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives.

3. Unemployed women waiting to be hired as day workers at what they referred to as the Bronx “slave market,” 1939

Unemployment was a part of workers’ lives throughout the twentieth century, although it reached the national consciousness most during depressions. For some occupations, especially day labor, whether it be domestic or outdoor, the possibility of no work is a daily occurrence. From the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL.

4. Eighth-floor sales at Gimbel’s department store, 1957

Nearly a quarter of the city’s workforce was employed in the retail and wholesale trades at mid-century, a percent that held remarkable steady in subsequent decades. One big change, however, is the quality of the employment, with up to 80% of store workers in intermittent and/or part time jobs. From the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives.

5. Sau Kuen Wong, single operator, undated

The garment industry in NY peaked in 1947 with 350,000 workers; by 1993 there were only 86,000. The long decline has been followed by a resurgence of sweatshops, many of them employing undocumented immigrants at extremely low wages. From the ILGWU Archives, Kheel Center, Cornell University, photograph by Bob Gumpert.

6. A baseball game on Randall’s Island, 1942

Mid-century saw a high point in a union culture of solidarity that included engagement in a surprising range of activities, including health centers, cooperative stores, cultural events, education programs, social affairs, a camera club, and a Labor Sports Federation. From the Robert F. Wagner Archives, District 65 Collection.