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Harry Kelber, a Forgotten Labor Activist

Lawrence Bush
March 26, 2017

by Bennett Muraskin

HARRY KELBER (1914-2013) was a union organizer, journalist, publisher, educator, and dissident who capped his career by writing an autobiography, My Seventy Years as a Labor Activist. Yes, seventy years! His career included union activism and developing the first labor studies program at Cornell University, a program that eventually evolved into Empire State College.

Kelber was born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents and dropped out of college when his father, a union garment worker, died during the Depression. As a teenage grocery clerk, Kelber helped lead a successful three-month strike. By age 22, he was editing a labor publication and in short order became the publicity director for the United Furniture Workers, a CIO union. As a young man, he also joined the Communist Party, but he was never, he said of himself, a true believer.

After military service in World War II, he returned to labor journalism, supporting Henry Wallace’s presidential campaign In 1948. After the CIO expelled eleven unions for communist affiliations in 1949, Kelber apprenticed to become a union printer and joined the International Typographical Union. In 1962-63, he participated in a prolonged but successful newspaper lockout/strike in New York City, during which he edited the union’s strike bulletin.

Four years earlier, at the age of 45 years, Kelber had gone back to college. By 1966, he earned a PhD from New York University in American Studies. His dissertation dealt with the effect of automation on union printers and was published as a book. After a stint teaching history and English at a technical institute, he became a pioneer in labor education for union officers and members, developing that first labor studies program at Cornell. In this work he received the constant support of Harry Van Arsdale, president of the New York Central Labor Council from 1958 to 1986, and of his students, who rallied to Kelber’s defense when his job and the programs he created were threatened. Kelber nevertheless faced more than his share of academic jealousy and administrative obstruction, but persevered in his efforts to design innovative programs and curricula that allowed working trade unionists to earn college degrees.

When Kelber left the Communist Party after Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin, he remained on the left, participating in the anti-Vietnam war, civil rights and anti-nuclear movements. He joined a delegation of radical political economists to China in 1973 during the Cultural Revolution and was offended by the worship of Mao Tse Tung. After the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, he was invited to Russia to run seminars on the role of labor unions in a democratic society.

As a labor journalist, Kelber published The Labor Educator, a newsletter, and wrote popular pamphlets promoting unionism and addressing a wide variety of labor issues, including sexism in the workplace. His 1990 pamphlet, “Why Unions are in Trouble and What They Can Do About It,” aroused the ire of the AFL-CIO leadership and cost him his job as education director for Local 3, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. This experience inspired him to launch a quixotic campaigns for AFL-CIO vice president in 1993 and 1995 to expose the absence of democracy in the labor federation. His pamphlet, “Ten Ways to Reform an Undemocratic AFL-CIO,” pulled no punches. In retaliation for his dissident activities, in 2003 the Communications Workers of America (which has absorbed Kelber’s old union International Typographical Union) expelled him. The CWA president responsible for this act was none other than his former student, Morty Bahr.

When John Sweeney became AFL-CIO president in 1995 on a reform platform, Kelber offered his critical support, but became disillusioned and was planning a run against Sweeney’s successor, Richard Trumka, shortly before dying at 98 in 2013.

In 2006, the progressive labor magazine Labor Notes gave Kelber a well-deserved Lifetime Troublemaker Award. He considered himself a socialist to his dying day.

Kelber learned Yiddish from his parents. He was a bar mitsve and was familiar with the liturgy, but rejected Judaism as a teenager after attending a high holiday service in which he witnessed a poor man being turned away because he could not afford a ticket while the synagogue makhers were auctioning off aliyot to the highest bidder.

Kelber had three children with two wives, one a gentile and the other Jewish, but gave them no Jewish education. Although he served in France during World War II, in his autobiography he failed to remark on any aspect of the Holocaust, including French Jewish resistance to the Nazis. As an adult, It does not appear that he had any involvement in Jewish life.

His second wife, Mimi Kelber, who died in 2004, was a journalist, a feminist, and a speechwriter and top advisor to Bella Abzug. She co-authored Gender Gap: Bella Abzug’s Guide to Political Power for American Women (1984), and her numerous articles appeared in publications including The New York Times, Ms. Magazine, The Nation and the Columbia Law Review.

Kelber put his own writing skills to good use in his autobiography. It is informative, colorful and consistently interesting. In addition to his numerous pamphlets, he wrote a novel called (you guessed it) The Labor Leader and also wrote (this you did not guess) poetry -- and in his old age composed avant-garde music.

The late Henry Foner memorialized Harry Kelber in the following words: “It would take volumes to recount the contributions that Harry Kelber has made to the labor movement and the well-being of the American people. As one who has known him through many of his campaigns, I join in grieving his death . . . The labor movement and the American people are much the poorer as a result of his death and we have the responsibility of redoubling our efforts to help bring about the kind of society to which he devoted his fruitful life.”

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.