Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day: Honoring Union Leaders I've Known

First Published in DelawareLiberal on September 1, 2014 by ProgressivePopulist

This 2014 Labor Day give me the opportunity to reflect on the labor leaders and organizers I've had the privilege to know.  Few of those among us who are not union members appreciate the brutal, thankless work done by labor leaders in this country that make our working lives at least halfway tolerable.  I want to honor the several such leaders who have impacted my life so positively.

First, my grandfather,  Stan Worthen.  A guy with just a few years elementary education living in Salt Lake City who organized the Projectionist Union there when movies were barely out of the talkie stage.  I got to see how hard he worked as a lucky kid who got to watch him run those projectors in his underwear because that hot little room above the seating area was so damned hot from the humming projectors.  Yes free movies for me.  But Stan was a scrappy little guy who fought for rights few enjoyed.  It allowed him to enjoy a middle class life, owning his own home with a rose garden in back.  It also enabled my grandmother to have a modest retirement after Stan had his final heart attack in the rose garden.

Next, Don Horn, Sec. Treasurer of the Houston AFL-CIO.  He led that union through its glory days of growth in the 70's and 80's with the oil and population boom that region enjoyed.  A charming, very skilled negotiator, Don was a powerhouse of a community leader as well, taking the union through its very best days in that area.  We lost Don in 2007 but I had the privilege of helping Don with his communications to maximize the esteem the AFL-CIO enjoyed in those days in a very labor hostile boom town era.

Bob Comeaux, Houston, Texas and now San Antonio.  Bob was a young guy I got to meet in the 70's through Democratic politics.  He was a labor organizer who also ran for Democratic political office back in those days.  Bob was an organizer for the American Federation of Teachers and himself taught school.  Though a really young guy back then, he really knew his way around Democratic politics in Texas and taught me much more than I was able to contribute to him.  I helped him with his campaign and he also educated me about the importance of the Party to working class families.

Orell Fitzsimmons.  Orell was a passionate, tough and very combative organizer for SEIU as they were just getting a foothold in Texas in the early 2000's.  I had the privilege of serving as his political director in Texas when I first retired from my hospital consulting business.  I learned up close and person how challenging it was to get hard scrabble school custodial and foodservice workers to engage politically, given their long days and frequent need for extra jobs to put food on the table for their families.  I also learned how difficult it was for unions to salvage their jobs, often sacrificed by school district administrators and school boards in favor of contract companies for custodial and food services who could pay their people way less than union employees, barely surviving already.   I also saw Orell repeat over and over attempts to organize food workers at shiny new stadiums and baseball fields, undermined by management who exploited, threatened and fired those workers exercising the constitutional right to organize for fair wages.

Finally, Wade Rathke.  Orell introduced me to his boss Wade when I was first interviewed.  What a legend.  Wade was the creator of ACORN as well as the regional director of the SEIU out of New Orleans.  Charismatic, brilliant and totally committed to his work empowering low income communities and workers, needful to say I was devastated when ACORN was immolated by the Republican attack by O'Keefe and lightening fast abandonment by my own Democrats.  But Wade was and is undaunted in his continuing work to help poor and minority people attain some long overdue justice in their lives.  In happy contrast, SEIU flourishes and continues to grow as the most hopeful area of labor organizing in an economy what doesn't give a rats ass about those good people who clean up our messes and do the work few of us want.   Wade is still a vital force to be reckoned with.

So, I just want to say Thank You to these dedicated servants of humanity who have so improved my life