CORPORATE CRIME REPORTER
VOL. 25 No. 26, Monday, June 27, 2011
Only seven percent of the private work force in the USA is unionized.
There is very little organizing going on.
Union labor is dead in the water.
And Harry Kelber knows why.
Kelber edits the laboreducator.org.
Every week, he pounds the leaders of the AFL-CIO for not actively challenging the corrupt corporate establishment in Washington.
For paying 131 of its executives more than $100,000 a year.
For censoring any criticism of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And Kelber says he knows how to turn things around.
We interviewed Kelber on June 22, 2011.
CCR: When and where were you born?
KELBER: I was born in New York City on June 20,1914. That's 97 years ago.
CCR: What was the work of your parents?
KELBER: My father Zalman Kelber made men's clothing. He happened to be one of the founders of the clothing workers union in New York City.
He left Russia because he feared being drafted into the Russian Army. He came here in 1911.
He came alone. He had a family a wife and one sister. I was born a year and a half after my father brought the rest of the family over to New York City.
CCR: What was your mother's name?
KELBER: Ita Soifer. Soifer was her maiden name. She was also from Russia. At that time, it was Romania.
CCR: Your father was a labor organizer?
KELBER: No he was a worker. But he was also an activist in his union. He was not an organizer. I became the organizer.
CCR: Where did you go to school?
KELBER: I went to school in East New York at Thomas Jefferson High School one of the finest high schools at that time in the city.
CCR: You remember being politically aware in high school?
KELBER: I was a conservative in high school. 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.
CCR: How long did you hold that belief?
KELBER: About a year.
My teacher in that high school was Rose Russell. She went on to become president of the Teachers' Union when I became an activist.
And later, we had a wonderful time going over those debates in high school.
CCR: When did you go to university?
KELBER: I won a four year scholarship to Cornell University. I went there.
After three months, I got a letter from my mother saying my father was dying and they wanted me home. I had to leave Cornell and try to find a job to be a breadwinner for the family.
CCR: How old was your father when he died?
KELBER: He was under 40. He had what they called consumption. He died in his sleep. It probably was a heart attack.
CCR: Did you get a job?
KELBER: Yes. I got a job in a grocery store in Brooklyn.
It was called Weinstein's.
It was a large store. He had about 20 clerks. I was the youngest.
I was originally hired just for work on Saturday. Eventually, they put me on full time.
But I looked around and said this is not for me.
We were working 78 hours a week. And I said I'm exhausted.
We were off Sundays. And I spent Sundays getting ready for work.
I said that's no life for me. I didn't know much about organizing. But a friend of my father said why don't you go to the union and ask him for a union job. I did that.
I went to the union. I met one of the organizers. And he said the union is not an employment agency. You want to have a union job, you go organize your shop.
And so I went back and started organizing, talking to the boys and saying why don't we have a union.
At a union job, the hours are less, the wages are higher, and the bosses treat you decently.
CCR: Did you organize Weinstein's?
KELBER: Yes. I organized it and led a four month's strike there.
CCR: What year was that?
KELBER: 1933 and 1934.
CCR: What was the owner's name?
KELBER: Louis Weinstein.
CCR: And what was his response?
KELBER: Terrible. He decided that I was the ring leader. He called me into his office and said I will give you a five dollar a week raise.
I was making at the time $15 a week.
But he said : forget about the union. Forget about the union. I don't want to hear anyone talking about the union. And you will report to me
He said he would make me an assistant manager. And he said he would give me time off to go to Brooklyn College.
He said you are a smart boy, Harry.
CCR: What was your response?
KELBER: I said I have to talk it over with my mother.
He called me the next day into his office. He was impatient. He said what's the answer.
I said I can't do it.
And so he fired me on the spot. He said take your apron off and get the hell out.
So, I went back to the union.
And I said I'm fired. The union leader a man named Norman Eselson he said you are going to be the strike steward. And I want you to follow my directions.
We called up all of the workers. And we told them to report in front of Weinstein's and not go in.
And that's how the strike began.
CCR: Were there people who broke the strike?
KELBER: Only the manager and assistant manager broke the strike. The rest of the workers were so scared of the union leader he was a tough looking guy.
And he said no one is going to go in. And no one did. It was strange.
CCR: It was a different time.
KELBER: Quite different. And the workers were upset. They were working terrible hours. And they could have their wages cut in a moment.
CCR: What was the result?
KELBER: He offered workers to come back and everything would be forgotten. We did not come back. We were ready to give up. We couldn't afford to stay out any longer.
The strike benefits were just taking care of our rent. So on that day, the attorney for Mr. Weinstein came to our attorney and said let's settle this. And we settled it.
They negotiated with the union. We got the $5 a week more for everyone. Hours were reduced to 61 hours a week, with the understanding that it would go down to 58 hours the following year.
CCR: Were you rehired?
KELBER: No. One of the conditions was that I was never to come back into that store. And that was non-negotiable.
CCR: Did you end up going back to school?
KELBER: Many years later, I went back to Brooklyn College. I was doing quite well. I got my BA.
Then I got my MA and PhD at New York University. I did it all in five and a half years. That was in the early 1960s.
CCR: You were at the time in your 50s.
KELBER: Yes. And I was working at the New York Post as a linotype operator.
CCR: What was your work from your 20s until your 50s?
KELBER: I was working at Trade Union Service. It was a publishing house for trade union newspapers. I started out carrying coffee for the staff.
And I eventually got an assignment to cover a story it was a bakers' strike. I wrote up the story, they liked it and they gave me more and more assignments.
CCR: So, during that time of your life you were a labor reporter?
KELBER: Yes, labor reporter and editor. And I helped unions start their publications. I did that for the teachers' union, for the teamsters, for the transport workers union, for the curtain and drapery workers. I was adept at setting up labor publications for these unions. And they were very grateful.
CCR: What were the best labor newspapers?
KELBER: The National Maritime Union Pilot was very good.
CCR: What was the circulation of the best papers?
KELBER: It went to the union members. They had circulations of tens of thousands.
I could not pin it down to an exact number. But they were substantial. This was a period of organizing. People were flocking into unions. And there was a spirit of being with the union you don't cross picket lines.
CCR: When did the unions start to decline?
KELBER: The watershed was in the early 1950s when the AFL-CIO expelled 13 industrial unions that were originally part of the CIO. Those were the militant unions. Those were the unions carrying on the organizing campaigns. And so it became the standard of the staid old AFL-CIO.
CCR: When did the AFL and CIO merge?
KELBER: They merged in 1936.
The decline began when the 13 industrial unions were expelled. It was devastating.
CCR: Why couldn't the expelled unions have succeeded independently?
KELBER: The AFL-CIO started a policy of raiding their members.
CCR: The powerful conservative unions crushed the radical unions?
KELBER: Yes, exactly, you got it.
CCR: And that was the beginning of the end.
What about Taft-Hartley?
KELBER: It was passed in 1947. President Truman vetoed it. But the Congress overrode his veto.
It outlawed secondary picketing.
If there was a strike, other unions that were sympathetic to it could not support that strike.
That became illegal.
CCR: How would you describe the labor movement today?
KELBER: Purely defensive. Not able to carry on a counterattack against the corporations.
CCR: Why is that?
KELBER: I reported just last week that 131 AFL-CIO staffers earn $100,000 or more.
CCR: Do most workers know that?
KELBER: They don't. I publicized it.
CCR: What percentage of the work force is unionized?
KELBER: 13.9 percent.
CCR: How about public workers versus private workers?
KELBER: The public workers about 37 percent are unionized.
Private unionization is deplorable. It's less than seven percent. It is the lowest in 100 years.
Back in the 1930s, it was a hectic period of organizing. 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.
CCR: What unions are actively organizing?
KELBER: The nurses are the best.
CCR: What about the SEIU?
KELBER: They used to be the best. But they got into the business of appointing trusteeships to run many of their largest affiliates.
They eliminated a local of 125,000 by putting in a trustee and firing all of the top people. That was in California.
SEIU is in a class warfare with their own members. And you can't do well in that kind of situation.
CCR: What needs to be done to turn the movement around?
KELBER: What needs to be done? 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.
CCR: You say it's corruption.
KELBER: No one can run for election and have the slightest chance of getting elected.
CCR: But there are elections.
KELBER: They are shams. And they have been shams for decades.
CCR: You ran in 1995. So, there was an election. And you ran.
KELBER: I was the only rank and file union member ever to run.
CCR: How did you do?
KELBER: I had 40 central labor councils to endorse me. I must have gotten about 40 or 50 votes.
CCR: They didn't publish the results?
KELBER: They didn't publish my votes. They didn't mention me at all except at one point they mentioned that I was a candidate for executive council. In 25 years, my name never appeared in any AFL-CIO publication.
CCR: You say that the AFL-CIO recently decided that there would be no debate about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
KELBER: They have said that they do not want to get involved in the politics of war. That does not mean that they will stop one of their unions like the Communications Workers from passing antiwar resolutions. But they don't want their publications to talk about it.
So, if you will examine the AFL-CIO 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-CIO 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-CIO 's top leadership can be very vindictive. I've been fired at least two or three times for expressing my views.
CCR: Where were you fired from?
KELBER: For example, I was the director of the educational and cultural fund of the Electrical Industry, giving services to 36,000 union members. I held that job beautifully, doing all of things that were important for six years. .
During that time, I had written a pamphlet on what was wrong with the AFL-CIO and how to remedy it.
The head of the joint board called a meeting of the staff and fired me on the spot.
I told him I do not accept being fired.
CCR: What year was that?
KELBER: That was in 1990. I told him I do not accept being fired. I told him you can't fire me, I'm going to quit in six months. And I don't want any mention that I was fired. And if he wanted to fire me, I would expose what he has been doing and all of the corruption in the organization. So, he calmed down. And he gave me the six months. And when I left there was no mention at all. This is how vindictive they can be.
CCR: Give me your take on Richard Trurnka the head of the AFL-CIO.
KELBER: At one point, I liked his work. He was head of the miners union. There was a strike at Pittston, And he acted like a real labor leader. The minute he was made Secretary Treasurer, his attitude changed.
CCR: What year was he made secretary treasurer?
KELBER: 1995. The minute he became secretary treasurer, he become 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-CIO, 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.
CCR: What kind of resources does he have at his disposal?
KELBER: They keep it secret. I know for a fact that at one point they were in the hole for millions of dollars. That was about 2009. Before the last election.
Trumka is leading a union that does not allow elections.
CCR: There must be people within the AFL-CIO who feel as you do. -
KELBER: Yes. But they are keeping quiet. They know. These are smart people. They know the score. They know that the AFL-CIO is declining. But they do not want to support any kind of militant action that disrupts and endangers their positions.
And they won't talk to me. And they won't talk publicly. And they have never said a word about me either favorable or unfavorable.
CCR: Isn't part of the problem that the AFL-CIO is wedded to the Democratic Party?
KELBER: They are wedded and there is tremendous dissatisfaction. 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.
CCR: One such opportunity was when, earlier this year, President Obama walked across Lafayette Park and went to speak to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Trumka is pleased that he meets with Obama. And there are no complaints on the AFL-CIO web site Because they don't allow dissent.
CCR: In 2008, Obama promised an increase in the minimum wage and card check legislation.
KELBER: The result?
He bamboozled the union people.
Obama, knowing that the AFL-CIO is not much to deal with, can move steadily to the right, and have no serious criticism from the AFL-CIO.
CCR: Among the young labor journalists, who do you like?
KELBER: Mark Gruenberg. He writes a series of articles weekly. He is the one decent reporter. The others tag along and do not say anything that in any way attacks the leadership. There is nothing in their pages to indicate they are displeased with the leadership. I'm the only one.
CCR: What about Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times?
KELBER: He doesn't criticize the leadership. He has never talked to me.
CCR: Do you have any hope for the Democratic Party?
Trumka was hinting at a new political movement. But he won't do it.
We need something to push the Democratic Party. Right now they are being pushed by corporations. And they're having a good time and lapping up all of that money.
We need a political movement that represents working people's aspirations.
CCR: Union busting is no longer an issue, right?
KELBER: There is very little union organizing.
Take Target Department stores. 1750 stores.
Not one is unionized. We have one in contention.
CCR: Why has there not been any organizing at Target?
KELBER: The AFL-CIO gives them no reason to join. They are not being organized.
CCR: What about organizing at Wal-Mart?
KELBER: 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-ClO?
[Contact: Harry Kelber, 75 Henry Street, Apt. 14K, Brooklyn, New York 11201. Phone: 718.858.7728. E-mail: email@example.com]