Unlikely bid for organization’s top office to emphasize transparency
By Sarah Freishtat | The Washington Times | Thursday, July 19, 2012
When Harry Kelber announced his intention to run for president next year of the nation’s largest labor organization, he carefully planned his campaign message. But he also had something else to plan — his 98th birthday party.
Mr. Kelber, a longtime labor activist from Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., and outspoken critic of the AFL-CIO, announced his candidacy late last month on the day he turned 98. He will be 99 when he formally challenges AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka, who was elected in 2009, at the labor union’s convention in September 2013.
"I’m a sincere old guy, and I can’t, in the final years of my life, give up," Mr. Kelber said in a telephone interview, lisping slightly. "I can spend my final years in flowers looking around and watching TV, and I’m forgoing that."
The labor gadfly said his platform will emphasize transparency and more activism on behalf of members, calling for the release of finance reports from the top officers. The labor umbrella group, he contends, has done nothing to better workers’ lives in the past 15 years while its influence on Capitol Hill is rapidly waning.
"Give [workers] something to fight for," Mr. Kelber said. "Where’s the leadership to help them improve their conditions?"
Mr. Kelber’s other big issue is the way the Executive Council, the organization’s governing body, is run. The AFL-CIO is governed by a president, secretary-treasurer, and executive vice president, who together oversee 54 other vice presidents representing member unions. Mr. Kelber contends the concerns of ordinary workers aren’t reflected at the national level.
The organization’s first, and last, contested election was in 1995, when John Sweeney, strongly supported by Mr. Trumka at the time, ousted an incumbent to become AFL-CIO president. That same year, Mr. Kelber ran for a vice president position, forcing an election that would otherwise have been uncontested, he said. He did not win.
The AFL-CIO did not return calls from The Washington Times to discuss Mr. Kelber’s challenge.
"The AFL-CIO forbids elections," said Mr. Kelber, who said rank-and-file members get no say in who runs the AFL-CIO. "Isn’t that a contradiction of democratic trends?"
But Eve Weinbaum, director of the Labor Relations and Research Center at the University of Massachusetts, said she sees few flaws with the election process.
"Procedurally, the AFL-CIO, the process is very transparent and formally democratic," she said.
Mr. Kelber’s fiery rhetoric comes from a busy 73-year career of activism in the labor movement. He began his career at age 25 in 1939, when he published two labor newspapers. Since then, he has edited numerous labor newsletters and pamphlets, including two during the 1962-63 strike that shut down newspapers in New York City for more than three months. He led a seminar for labor leaders in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, published a memoir on his seven decades in the labor movement in 2008 and currently runs a labor-oriented website called the Labor Educator.
"A man of this age, with this much drive and spirit to help out working people, this is just amazing," said Ray Rogers, a longtime friend and business partner who runs Corporate Campaign, an organization that aids unions and has published Mr. Kelber’s pamphlets.
The chances of Mr. Kelber winning are slim, Mr. Rogers acknowledged, but "stranger things have happened."
"The cards are stacked so high the way the election process is run now, he’d have little to no chance of winning," he said. "But you’ve got to start somewhere."