The late Charles Moskos and I shared an interest in trying to spot a Greek-sounding name during the long list of credits at the end of a film. Moskos had already published his seminal book ‘Greek Americans: Struggle and Success’ in which he meticulously listed the names of Greek-Americans that had achieved prominence or notoriety in all walks of life in the United States. He was obviously interested in learning about many more even if their public recognition amounted to being listed in film credits. I share that interest and keep up the habit. I am very often one of the last persons to leave the cinema, straining my eyes to read the small font used for persons involved in the minor jobs that are listed last. Another form of Greek-name searching that I like doing is scouring the newspaper I read every day, the New York Times, for mentions of such names.
“What’s in a name,” one may ask. Shakespeare famously believed that naming a rose by any other name would make it smell just as sweet. But those Greek names, indeed any ethnically sounding names in a multiethnic society such as the United States, are important signifiers. They alert us to the existence of members of an ethnic group and their presence in specific professions and can even shed light on their diverse occupations. Such diversity is always a good thing – it shows an ethnic group is thoroughly integrated into American society and co-exists with other groups.
It was with that in mind that I experienced great pleasure but also surprise to learn, in a prominently displayed New York Times article, that the name of the secretary-treasurer (he previously served as president) of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which is based in Las Vegas, is Ted Pappageorge. A Greek connected to culinary workers is hardly a surprise given the involvement of Greek Immigrants and their offspring in the restaurant business in America. But to find a Greek-American in charge of a labor union was more than a surprise. I thought Greeks in labor unions was a thing of the distant past, when Greeks worked in mines and on the railroad and as workers other in other professions in the early twentieth century. And they became radicalized because of the awful working conditions they had to endure. The most famous Greek American labor leader is Louis Tikas, who lost his life during a miners’ strike in Colorado in 1914. Less known is that in his youth the acclaimed painter Aristodemos Kaldis led a hotel workers strike in New York in the 1930s. The late Dan Georgakas, the historian and columnist in the National Herald, argued passionately for us to recognize of Greek workers and left-wing radicals as an integral part of Greek America.
While we should certainly agree, it is also true that Greek-American workers, as soon as they could, left those jobs and opened their own small business. By the post-WWII era, the number of Greek American workers and those among them who became labor leaders had been drastically reduced. Thus the pleasant surprise at learning about Ted Pappageorge.
However, there is much more to Pappageorge’s name. More than merely informing us that that there are still some Greeks left in the American labor movement. Given the multiethnic composition of the labor movement and the demands currently made by ethnic groups, it reflects well on Greek-Americans that a member of our community is in such a position.
The organization Pappageorge heads, the Culinary Union’s Local 226, has improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Nevada hospitality workers and their families with union wages and benefits. And in terms of diversity, it mirrors present-day America. Its website mentions the Union
is Nevada’s largest Latinx/Black/Asian American Pacific Islander /immigrant organization, with members who are originally from 178 countries and speak over 40 different languages. The Culinary Union has a diverse membership comprised of 55% women and 45% immigrants. The demographics of Culinary Union members are approximately: 54% Latinx, 18% white, 15% Asian, 12% Black, and less than 1% Indigenous Peoples.
Presently in the United States we hear a lot about white privilege and the need to redress past injustices. As is the case with many new social movements, these demands are expressed in a hyperbolic manner and can even contain a degree of the very intolerance they are aiming to overcome. Nonetheless, the privileges enjoyed by white Americans, are indisputable and that also goes for the Greek-Americans even though they had to work hard to gain access into the mainstream America. But Pappageorge, and any other Greek-Americans whose name we do not know and who may be involved in American labor unions, are a reminder that Greek-America is diverse. We may have ‘made it’ in America, and we partake of the privileges accruing to whites in this country, but some of us are connected and working hand in hand with the less privileged ethnic groups.