Remembering Seth Rosen
Seth Rosen (left)
On July 20th, Seth Rosen, 55, finished five months of negotiating a contract for some of the 70,000 workers and retirees he represented as vice president of the Communication Workers of America District 4. He then went on vacation in North Carolina and while swimming at the beach with his wife, Kathi, was swept away and drowned by rough waves. He spent his last day the way he spent so many of his previous ones: fighting for justice, finding some joy, loving his family.
Like countless advocates, activists, organizers and musicians, I benefitted from Seth Rosen’s friendship, encouragement and inspiration. Chairing the board of Policy Matters Ohio, the think tank I run, was one tiny thing in the big, big life Seth lived. But one of Seth’s many gifts was that he invariably made you feel your work mattered as much as anything else. He made legions feel that way about their music (he played mandolin and guitar), their activism, their organizing, their lives.
As news spread of our incalculable loss, hundreds of statements were posted – on Facebook, on union sites, on a mandolin listserv – by everyone from senators to singers to flight attendants. His ally John Ryan spoke of his dedication to workers, his one-time boss Jeff Rechenbach of his brilliance, activist Jim Miller of his friendship, labor leader Harriet Applegate of his scrappiness, singer Deborah Van Kleef of his generosity, community organizer Kirk Noden of his movement-building, Senator Sherrod Brown of his tenacity, son and daughter Josh and Amanda Rosen of his warmth, writer Connie Schultz of his humor, State Representative Mike Foley of his optimism, activist Gabrielle Seay of his legacy, SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry of his impact, family friend Nate Gulley of how Seth treated Josh’s then-teenage friends (with respect, generosity and amusement, just how he treated the rest of us).
I too loved these things about Seth. His insights on how to improve my advocacy, sharpen my analysis – even manage my organization – were staggering. But I valued even more his ability, as a deeply principled person, to help me decide when compromise sacrificed a principle and when it advanced a cause. He didn’t allow himself the luxury of refusing to negotiate – his life was consumed by negotiating in increasingly trying times for people paid by the hour.
He forced unity between those agitating for racial justice, economic equity, environmental sanity, peace, or human rights, even when others didn’t see the connection. Seth told social workers reluctant to dirty their hands with labor fights that a union was the best anti-poverty program. He reminded union allies of their mission to defend all workers, not just those with a contract. He helped start Jobs with Justice chapters to galvanize labor and community for the most disadvantaged. When Midwest Republicans kneecapped collective bargaining rights, Seth turned the opposition into a battle for good jobs and strong communities, not just a focus group to get to 51 percent. He lamented living in an Ohio where each election was deemed the “most important ever.” Instead, he chose longer-term struggles with movements and coalitions, those impossible animals.
Bruce Springsteen, another musician with a fire for regular Americans, sang of someone he’d lost, “I know you’ll take comfort in knowing you’ve been roundly blessed and cursed.” Many have undoubtedly cursed Seth’s insight, strategy, humor and charm. I’ll confess some sympathy for executives who took him on – he listened cordially to opponents but never failed to make a cooly compelling case for his point of view.
Which isn’t to say Seth was never wrong. You can’t stand at the intersection of labor and community, politics and the economy, people and power, and never play a false note. I don’t think that daunted Seth – he rarely hesitated to take a stand. He joked about an Asimov book he’d read as a kid, in which we didn’t have the power to make the world better, but only to shorten the duration of the bad period. But damn if he didn’t think that he – and you and I - should be part of that struggle.
He was a cynical optimist. He understood complexity, often summarizing a rambling conversation at a meeting with his characteristic, “I have two comments and a question.” Inevitably one of the points would draw a laugh, and all would strike home. That humor shows in the dozens of videos of Seth speaking, singing, shouting and playing music, that survive him. Whether the moment is serious, righteous, sad, outraged, or joyful, if you zoom in you’ll see that bemused glint in those crinkly eyes. He hated injustice, but he recognized that life was often hilarious, and he wouldn’t miss a chance to laugh about it.
Many people as driven and gifted as Seth sacrifice family or pleasure to their work. I don’t think Seth did. He made time for guitar, mandolin, kids and friends. He and Kathi had more fun than most couples – biking, singing, comforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable and, I think, indulging a certain gallows humor at being progressives in a time of right-wing ascendance. I often caught them exchanging amused glances across a crowded room, in on the same joke.
In the days after we lost Seth an acquaintance asked, “What’s your succession plan?” Alas, there is no succession plan for Seth Rosen: not for me, his family, or the world. Sometimes, we just lose. But I can’t end on that note. Because as Seth said in a recent speech, with his usual smile, “we don’t just get attacked, we fight back, and sometimes we win.”
There is little consolation for the many of us who loved Seth. He deserved more time, we deserved more time with him. But I don’t think Seth could possibly have lived a better life. His friends in the Sethro Quartet and Gene’s Jazz Hot say it was always fun when Seth was playing. I can’t carry a tune, but I know it was. The world is a more just, more joyful place because of Seth Rosen. We thank him.
To contribute to the Seth Rosen Organizing Fund send checks to Annie Hill, Secretary-Treasurer, 501 Third Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20001.