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Labor Lyceum

Labor lyceum logo
Labor Lyceum logo, based on photo of Progressive Working People’s Lyceum building, design by Scott McCarney

Rochester’s most important public program on labor issues was the Labor Lyceum, a weekly forum organized by local unions and socialists. The Labor Lyceum met Sundays in the Common Council of the old City Hall from 1897 until 1911 when the mayor, upset by the views expressed by participants, locked them out. While the Central Trades & Labor Council (CTLC) did not actually sponsor the Labor Lyceum, it publicized and reported on lyceum programs, such as a 1911 talk by Leonora O’Reilly from the Women’s Trade Union League of New York, on “Trade Unions and Technical Education.”

After 1913 the Labor Lyceum was continued at the Progressive Working People’s Lyceum on St. Paul Street, a site built and owned by progressive unions and German community groups. The weekly lectures and other programs there were interrupted during the Red Scare of 1919, when Rochester police raided the Lyceum and seized its library. The CTLC, in line with the AFL’s shift from opposing to supporting World War I, joined the attack on Socialists and Wobblies and disavowed the Lyceum.

Marginalized politically and increasingly irrelevant to a generation of workers growing up with television, the Labor Lyceum finally closed within a few years of the death in 1956 of Joseph Stenglein, its president for 25 years. In 1955 the Lyceum’s Labor Open Forum ended with a lecture by Scott Nearing on “Civil Liberty and Academic Freedom.”

Lacking a regular public forum for the discussion of labor issues, the Rochester Labor Council revived the Labor Lyceum in 2000, when it inaugurated a program of monthly meetings at the new wing of Rundel Library. Meetings were held on Saturday mornings on topics ranging from Rochester’s General Strike of 1946 and union democracy to OSHA ergonomic standards, globalization, gender and pay equity, and pride at work.

In 2003 the Lyceum program moved from the library to the New York State United Teachers hall at 30 North Union Street. The schedule was fixed at a fall series (September - November) and a spring series (February - May). Topics and speakers included “Rebuilding Progressive Politics” (Adolph Reed, presenter), “Workers and War,” “African Americans and the U.S.Labor Movement” free trade, economic development, organizing, and labor-community coalition work. The 2005 lyceum series celebrated the Sesquicentennial, exploring topics of central labor body history included on this Web Site. The highlight of the 2006 spring series was Workers & Taxes, presented by New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston, a Rochester resident and Pulitzer prize-winning author.

Labor Lyceum presenters receive tee-shirts bearing on the front the logo image of the Progressive Working People’s Lyceum and on the back the following definitions:

ly•ceum (li•sê‘um), n. [L. fr. Gr. lykeion] A program of public lectures, debates, concerts, entertainments, etc. A place where such programs are held.

Labor Lyceum (lâ•bêr li•sê‘um) n. Founded in 1897 by Rochester workers, this forum for discussion of labor issues continued as the Progressive Working People's Lyceum through the 1950s and was revived in 2000 by the Rochester Labor Council.