Over eight decades in the labor movement, Harry Kelber has been a rank-and-file union leader, an author and an academic. At 25, he edited two weekly labor newspapers. At 57, he helped found a labor college at Empire State College. At 81, he ran for AFL-CIO vice president. Now 97, he writes three columns a week for his website, The Labor Educator. The Nation talked to Kelber about his experience of the labor movement’s past, his critique of its present and what he sees in its future. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.
As a teenager during the Depression, you led a grocery workers’ strike. How did you do it?
We were working seventy-eight hours a week at Weinstein’s. On Saturday nights, whoever had the lowest sales for the week was fired. I was a favorite of the owner, and he said, “I’ll make you an assistant manager.” When I said no, he fired me on the spot.
So I called up a union. We went around talking to workers around the city, and we decided that the next morning that we would all assemble outside the store, and no one would go in. The manager and the assistant manager were the only ones who stepped into the store. That created quite a commotion.
We kept up that strike for four months, until we were pretty desperate, and then just at the moment we were exhausted and said we can’t continue this, we reached an agreement. The strike was settled, and workers went back with a five dollar increase and an improvement in the workload—on the condition that I was never to return to the store.
How did it shape your view of the labor movement?
What I saw during the Depression convinced me that we needed a new society to allow people to earn a living.
It was during the toughest time. But my co-workers had very good motivations: They felt that they were being abused, and that there was no future for them. And they wanted to have a little recognition and respect. And we won Social Security, child labor laws and a resurgent movement. Now, why can’t we do that today?
What does the past year’s uprising in Wisconsin mean for labor?
There’s a marvelous new development. It shows the possibility of workers responding to horrible legislative actions. I think it’s going to spread throughout the country.
One of the problems that the labor movement has to deal with is that it seems to be always on the defensive, trying to block anti-worker campaigns. If you act like a union you’re going to grow. But there are not too many unions that are growing. A lot of them are just trying to survive, even with concessions to the employer. That’s not healthy.
Wisconsin is very heartening, and my feeling is that at some point, there will be a congress of all these people from all these separate actions around the country, who will seek either to change the AFL-CIO or to set up an entirely new organization that will represent the needs and sentiments of working people.
How do you see Occupy’s plans for a General Strike May 1? What can the labor movement learn from Occupy?
In terms of “general strike,” I would say that before occupiers takes that action they should check around with all the unions to see what support it will get. It would be terrible if it had minimal support and no one really noticed.