CORPORATE CRIME REPORTER
Harry Kelber on the Failure of the AFL, the Decline of Unions, and How to Turn it Around
25 Corporate Crime Reporter 27, June 28, 2011
At one time, Harry Kelber – who just turned 97 last week – was a conservative.
But that was in high school.
“Thomas Jefferson High School in New York City – one of the finest high schools at that time in the city,” Kelber told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week.
“I was a conservative in high school,” Kelber said. “I believed that capitalism was a wonderful thing because it gave everyone an opportunity.”
“I believed that the Communists were just vengeful. They were just sorry that they couldn’t make it.”
He would debate his high school teacher – Rose Russell – in front of the students.
Rose Russell went on to lead the teachers union in the city.
Harry Kelber went off to Cornell on a full scholarship.
But, three months into his studies at Cornell, he received a letter from his mother.
“After three months, I got a letter from my mother saying my father was dying and they wanted me home,” Kelber said. “I had to leave Cornell and try to find a job to be a breadwinner for the family.”
He got a job at Weinstein’s grocery store in Brooklyn.
He didn’t like what he saw.
Clerks working 78 hours a week, being paid $15 – a week.
The owner – Louis Weinstein – was not happy about the union – and fired Kelber.
But Kelber helped organize a strike and after four months, Weinstein relented and negotiated with the union.
Kelber was on his way to being a life long union activist.
Today, he edits laboreducator.org.
And he’s harshly critical of what he calls the corrupt AFL-CIO.
He’s reported recently that more than 130 officials at the AFL make $100,000 or more.
He says that the AFL has put US wars off limits to criticism.
“They have said that they do not want to get involved in the politics of war,” Kelber said. “That does not mean that they will stop one of their unions – like the Communications Workers – from passing anti-war resolutions. But they don’t want their publications to talk about it.”
“So, if you will examine the AFL web site for the past year, you won’t find any evidence that there are wars on. Not a mention about Libya. And the labor press follows suit. They know what the AFL leadership wants, so they don’t want to antagonize them. Members don’t speak up, because they are scared of losing their jobs.”
“The AFL’s top leadership can be very vindictive. I’ve been fired at least two or three times for expressing my views.”
Kelber is critical of the current AFL leadership – in particular of its president, Richard Trumka.
“At one point, I liked his work. He was head of the miners union,” Kelber said.“There was a strike at Pittston. And he acted like a real labor leader. The minute he was made Secretary Treasurer in 1995, his attitude changed.”
“The minute he became secretary treasurer, he became more conservative. He admitted that he was a lieutenant of John Sweeney. And that he would do Sweeney’s bidding.”
“He’s not distinguished by any action in those 14 years. In the past year and a half – during the time he has been president of the AFL – he has done nothing except act as commentator. He does nothing. He called for a campaign to make Wall Street pay. And he made speeches outside the Bank of America. But they are only speeches. He never went in and talked with the bankers and said – listen, we want to negotiate, we want reparations, or else we are going to disrupt.”
“Only one percent of the banks are unionized.”
Kelber says one part of the problem is that the AFL is wedded to the Democratic Party.
“They are wedded and there is tremendous dissatisfaction,” Kelber said. “And just recently, in the past couple of months, Trumka said he has heard that the working people in the union want to be independent of the two parties. And Trumka said he will be moving in that direction. And they will have year around activity.”
“But that’s just pre-election rhetoric. He was talking about breaking from the Democratic Party. He said he would not support any candidate that does not favor helping the unemployed. That’s pretty nonsensical. Of course, it is just rhetoric. He makes speeches to please the membership. But there is no action to do anything. He comes out as an advocate of change, and he ends up without change. He had all kinds of possible opportunity for non violent action to express the discontent of American workers. Tremendous opportunity.”
Kelber said overall, only 13.9 percent of the American workforce is unionized.
“Back in the 1930s, it was a hectic period of organizing,” Kelber said. “Today, they are not organizing.”
“Here’s something to keep in mind – 1.3 million members quit unions between 2008 and 2010. Admittedly, those were rough times. But the AFL-CIO did nothing to counteract that. There was not even any discussion.”
“There is very little union organizing,” Kelber said.
“Take Target Department stores. 1750 stores. Not one is unionized. We have one in contention.”
“The AFL gives them no reason to join. They are not being organized.”
What about organizing at Wal-Mart?
“Yes, Wal-Mart is being organized in China. But not here.”
“Answer this question – Why should workers at this stage join an AFL-CIO union? What is the advantage of being a member of the AFL-CIO?”
Kelber says he knows how to turn the union movement around.
“What needs to be done?” he asks.
“A campaign of fighting back. They should follow the experiences of the civil rights movement. Non violence.”
“They could do tremendous things to force the government and the corporations to create jobs. Here we have about 25 million who are looking for jobs and can’t find them. They could sit down in government offices and demand that the lawmakers make some changes, provide for works projects. They could have a national sit down, or a national two hour stoppage. They could do what the workers abroad are doing every day in different countries.”
[For the complete q/a format Interview with Harry Kelber, see 25 Corporate Crime Reporter 27(11), print edition only.]