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.
But there is no question that there will be support for May Day actions. Occupy is doing a great job, and certainly has a good outlook. They have made a tremendous impact on the American labor movement, and I am positive that important changes will be taking place in the AFL-CIO because of it.
Organized labor should learn from Occupy that working people have to be involved in their own fate. In the AFL-CIO and the labor movement, union members are utterly ignored. The AFL-CIO is ruled by a handful of international union presidents. They can ignore working people at their pleasure and do whatever they want to do. For more than 100 years, no member out of a state federation of labor or central labor council or local union has ever been elected to a national leadership position.
Organized labor also has to recognize the significance of inequality, here and around the world. I mean the fight against inequality has now erupted, and what the occupation of Wall Street has done at a very minimum is to make that an issue that will continue forever until there is some reasonable solution.
How can labor wield more power in our politics?
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka promised, as a concession to worker protests, that they would have an independent worker voice and that they would not be dependent on the Democratic Party—that they would speak in terms of their own needs and desires. But that has never happened. There’s a division within labor about what to do about the Democratic Party. There’s strong opposition to many of the Democratic leaders, but there’s no action taken to form some kind of committee that will take this opposition forward.
They just had another demonstration on tax day. Their policy is to have demonstrations and e-mails as pressure points against the White House. By now they should know it doesn’t work. They’re pretending.
There is no single action that can turn this quiescent, do-nothing leadership around. If the two candidates are anti-labor, we can run our own. We may not win an election, but we’re making a statement. And we must be more energetic. For example, hold sit-downs in Congress, or a four-hour strike.
Or leave it to workers and tell them: “Look, you’re not going to have any jobs in the future—what do you propose to do?” Let the workers decide, because if you’re in a situation where the future is as bleak as many workers are facing, they’re not going to sit around and mope around. They’re going to find ways to express their anger. Right now they’re not expressing their anger in sufficient form.
How do you see the state of labor’s relationship to other progressive movements?
The AFL-CIO has, to its credit, tried to broaden itself by adding new allies to its campaigns, allies that agree in general, or in some cases on particular issues. And that’s all to the good. But not much has come from that. They put out literature, they perform an educational job, and that’s pretty much it.
On the other hand, the AFL-CIO website and statements from its officials will absolutely ignore the topic of contraception and abortion, because they say these are controversial issues. They ignore the fact that women represent 42 percent of the entire AFL-CIO membership.
What will the labor movement look like twenty years from now, or fifty?
Working people in the future will have to deal with the fact that millions of workers will no longer have jobs, because the economy is already in the process of change. New technology and automation are reducing the workforce. That will be the most serious problem: who will get the jobs?
What kind of living will the workers of tomorrow have? I don’t fancy that it will be really great. The unions are still limited to wages and hours. But we could end up with a poorly educated working class that cannot compete with the working class of other countries. It’s going to be a very tough thing for our children and grandchildren to cope with.
Our generation did pretty well at surviving—not great, but pretty well. But the question that bothers me is, What is the legacy that we can leave our children and grandchildren that will help them in their future lives? I don’t see any.
But I have confidence that our children and grandchildren will find a way to deal with the incredible pressing problems that they will face. I have in mind the Egyptian spring. Workers will stand so much, and then rebel. I do have confidence that we will see that day. We are seeing some of it today.
I, as an individual, am absolutely committed that for whatever years I have left, I will do my part to see that working people have their rights, and that the kind of chance for living that we promise people in the preamble to our Constitution actually takes place.
I wouldn’t be working spending my late years involved in these activities if I did not believe that there’s something in human character in the human being that will rebel against consistent abuse. I’m counting on that.