Harry Kelber, 1914-2013

Harry Kelber recited his poem "Wall Street Daydream" at the 2006 Labor Notes Conference.

Harry Kelber (1914-2013) spent 80 years as a labor activist. Through it all he championed worker ownership of their unions. When Labor Notes commissioned a roundtable on “organizing the unorganized” in 2007, Harry’s contribution argued that rank-and-file workers should be part of organizing drives.

In 1933 a teenaged Harry led a four-month strike that ended in victory. By age 25 he was editor of two weekly labor papers. In the 1962-63 printers strike that shut down New York’s daily newspapers for 114 days, Harry was editor of the union’s daily strike bulletin.

Harry was a union organizer and labor educator, but in recent years was best known for his pamphleteering and blog writing. He wrote two weekly web columns, “LaborTalk” and “World of Labor,” the latter devoted to international issues. We received emails from him as recently as February 25, with a list of questions AFL-CIO leaders should have to answer to be qualified to run for office, and March 27, giving reasons why unions should oppose the Keystone XL pipeline. His 2006 autobiography was My 70 Years in the Labor Movement.

Harry was a professor at the Labor College of Empire State College until his “retirement” in 1984—at which point he became education director of a big Electrical Workers (IBEW) local in New York.

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In 1995, he forced the AFL-CIO to hold the first contested election for its executive council in 30 years. In 2009, he tried again, telling followers exactly “what makes Harry run.” And last year, he announced he would run against Rich Trumka at this fall’s AFL-CIO convention.

In 2006 Harry addressed the Labor Notes Conference when he and two others of his generation received our Troublemaker Award (and Herman Benson and Erwin Baur are still with us). He recited from memory his poem “Wall Street Daydream” which began:

I wish I had a monopoly
Of the air that people breathe for free.
I’d have the world within my grasp
And I could squeeze and watch it gasp.
Every house would have a meter
And I’d charge so much a liter.
If anyone complained it wasn’t fair,
I’d simply disconnect his air….

Many articles about Harry dwell on his age, but we prefer to remember him for his lifetime of troublemaking.