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.