Labor Educator as Labor Radical

Harry Kelber, My 70 Years in the Labor Movement.  379pp, $20 pbk.  Labor Educator Press, 25 Washington St., Suite 302, Brooklyn NY 11201.

This is a revised edition of an underappreciated 1996 self-published classic by one of the most remarkable figures in the last half-century of American labor.

What makes Harry Kelber still tick, at 92, and a lot more than tick: to go on the offensive in newsletters and speeches against the absence of democracy in the upper ranks of the labor movement (AFL-CIO or Change to Win) and to proselytize for the need for global solidarity, innovative tactics, and, in general, a reawakening?  It can’t be a desire for the cushy retirement and rounds of golf confidently anticipated by the Meany- and Kirkland-era labor chiefs, that’s for sure.  We need to look back into another era, and Kelber’s many young decades, now so long past, lend us the opportunity to do so for a character still very much on the scene now.

Kelber was just 9, growing up in East New York’s slums of the early 1920s, when he was stricken with diphtheria, forced into bed, and made into a lifelong reader.  Only after his father’s untimely death did Kelber learn that the elder figure had been a founder of an Amalgamated Clothing Workers local, a member of the executive board, and a close follower of Joseph Schlossberg, an intense DeLeonite socialist who became a leading Labor Zionist in his own later decades.  Harry had the great good fortune of a radical high school teacher who conducted a salon for her students and the sobering reality of blue-collar work in the Depression.  Like many a future labor leader of the next generation, he had been cheated out of college and its career rewards by capitalism’s crushing failure.

Thus began Harry’s career as a food workers’ unionist, and it is a career that now spans almost seven decades.  Along the way, he acquired an enemy not only among bosses but in the person of George Meany, then a budding building trades conservative who blocked Kelber from his first bid at union newspaper editor.  It was another valuable lesson.  He emerged from the Armed Forces a labor newsman, independent-minded ally of the Left, and vigorous opponent of the redbaiting campaign that was to end organized labor’s upsurge after the crushing defeat of Henry Wallace’s 1948 Progressive Party campaign.  Facing the blacklist, he turned himself into a printer and was still in the trade at the time of the famed 1962 newspaper strike in New York.  He volunteered to become the prolific writer for the daily strike bulletin.  His life had changed again.

Harry went back to school, earned a PhD writing about automation and the printing trade, and, at 51, began his teaching career at the New York Institute of Technology.  Kelber initiated the labor studies program combining labor arts with the traditional union studies at Cornell’s Manhattan branch.  From there, he worked to create the Labor College, with surprising help from middle-of-the-road union leader Harry Van Arsdale.  His official retirement in 1984 led at first to a more educational work in the vicinity of Van Arsdale’s mini-empire.  And then, almost by accident and already in his mid-seventies, he waded into the rougher waters of challenging the labor bureaucracy.

When Harry published, through the offices of the Trade Union Leadership Institute in 1990, a little pamphlet entitled Why Unions Are in Trouble . . . and What They Can Do about It, he was courting trouble and he got it.  He was charged with disloyalty, of course, attacked as an “egocentric messiah,” and warned that the AFL-CIO had its own plans for global business unions and that his visits to the post-Communist Eastern Bloc were unwelcome.  The upper levels of the Kirkland machine in particular wanted to see only the back of him.

They were messing with the wrong guy: in 1995, the 81-year-old Kelber launched his own campaign to become an AFL-CIO vice-president on a platform of democratic transformation.  Meanwhile, he had become a sort of I.F. Stone for the labor movement, sending out his four-page newsletter on the bureaucracy’s latest blunders, and adding more information through the Web.  It was a propitious moment for reformers, a rare moment for the American labor movement, because Kirkland was forced into retirement and his reluctant protégé, Tom Donohue, lacked the votes to become only the fourth successor to the father of business unionism, Sam Gompers.  Here we are into “current history,” so to speak, and into the eighth decade of a once-youthful-radical who seemed to become more radical with each passing year of old age!

Kelber has peppered the AFL-CIO leaders, more recently the Change to Win leaders, with criticisms ever since, always offering sharp pointers that could be met with real constructive activity.  Somehow, though, they never seem to be.  Not that he was an iconoclast only, unwilling to rejoice at the occasional victories in organizing and political campaigns.  His main point was that the labor movement never seemed to build on those victories, or meet the challenges of further reductions, by the most obvious means available: to energize the rank and file by trusting in their capacities for self-leadership.  The unwillingness of labor leadership (all divisions) to take on Bush’s wars, the eagerness to shuck off independent political action (unless adopting the occasional Republican could be so described), the timidity in meeting rightwing threats to domestic liberties, all were of a piece to Kelber.  He closes his tale (unless he expects to write another update, at age 100) with an account of the Solidarity Center‘s participation in the attempted overthrow of Hugo Chavez, the confirmation of the dark rumors of organized labor’s return to Cold War practices, money spent and activities conducted globally in secrecy, without the knowledge of union members themselves.

Harry Kelber

By the 2004 AFL-CIO convention, the peppy 89 year old had come to be described officially as a “Security Risk” to the delegates.  Running as a candidate for a vice-presidency, Harry actually got his eight minutes in front of the delegates at the 2005 convention.  He didn’t miss the chance to tell them what they needed to hear.

Paul BuhlePaul Buhle, currently a lecturer in history and American civilization at Brown University, is author or editor of twenty-seven books on radicalism, labor, and popular culture, including five volumes on the films of the Hollywood blacklistees. Most recently, he coedited Wobblies: A Graphic History (2005) and The New Left Revisited (2003), winner of an American Library Association’s Choice Academic Book Award. He has written for The Nation, Times Higher Education Supplement, The Guardian, and the Journal of American History, among others. He founded the journal Radical America (1967-95), the Oral History of the American Left project (New York University), and the Community and Labor Oral History project of Rhode Island.

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