'She Was the Sparkplug': Gillian Furst, 1933-2015

The outstanding unionist and feminist Gillian Furst, a longtime activist in Teamsters for a Democratic Union and many other causes, died at her home in Minneapolis on July 20, at age 81. Photo courtesy of Randy Furst.

The outstanding unionist and feminist Gillian Furst, a longtime activist in Teamsters for a Democratic Union and many other causes, died at her home in Minneapolis on July 20, at age 81.

Her fascinating paid obituary in the Star Tribune reveals some highlights of a life well lived. Furst, a British citizen, was active in a number of social movements in England and the U.S.:

Following in the footsteps of her labor activist grandmother, Gillian was arrested for civil disobedience in a peaceful demonstration organized by Bertrand Russell in support of nuclear disarmament in the early 1960s. Because she refused to pay the 5-pound fine, a judge ordered her jailed for 30 days.

In the mid-1960’s Gillian was co-founder of the Agnostic Adoption Society in England, which succeeded in overturning the requirement in British law that adoptive parents must belong to a religious group. In 1971 she played a key role in organizing the first women’s liberation demonstration in British history, a march of 4,000 people.

Gillian was a socialist and secretary of her Labor Party branch at BBC-TV, where she became a researcher producing a number of powerful reports exposing injustices.

She worked for the current affairs program, “Braden’s Week” and later for “Panorama,” the British equivalent of “60 Minutes.” In 1970 Panorama sent her to the United States to develop three programs on the mood of America after four students were killed by the National Guard during an antiwar demonstration at Kent State University in Ohio.

She came across an article by Randy Furst, a journalist living in New York who had interviewed eyewitnesses to the shootings. She sought him out for help reaching his sources, and they fell in love….

In Minneapolis Gillian was employed as a social worker at the Joyce Neighborhood House, and her connections with many of the city’s downtrodden became a steady source of tips for Randy’s articles in The Minneapolis Star.

She became deeply involved in the causes of civil rights, women’s rights, American Indian rights and LGBT rights. She was a key local organizer of a project that sent buses of protesters to Springfield, Ill., for a rally to support passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Working with the Minneapolis NAACP, she organized buses to take civil rights activists to Boston to support the busing of students for school desegregation. She was also the key organizer of a Mother’s Day antiwar march and rally in Minneapolis, sponsored by Women Against Military Madness.

In 1978, determined to advance the cause of labor, she went to work at Honeywell where she became a Teamster in Local 1145 and worked on an assembly line making thermostats.

She was soon elected to the union shop committee and fought many grievances and contract battles on behalf of workers over the next two decades. In 1989 she was instrumental in founding the Minnesota chapter of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), which was devoted to democratizing the Teamsters, ending corruption and getting the union to stand up for members more vigorously. She was elected the chapter’s secretary-treasurer…

TDU National Organizer Ken Paff remembers:

I met Gillian and her husband, Randy Furst, at the 1989 TDU Convention in Pittsburgh. That convention was the kick-off of Ron Carey’s campaign, and where TDU voted to endorse Carey. Gillian had worked as a Teamster for years at the Honeywell instrument factory in Minneapolis, but had no contact with TDU.

As soon as she joined, she was fully committed.

Gillian and Randy had activist experience, and when they got excited about TDU, they never looked back. Gillian was elected a delegate from Local 1145 to the 1991 IBT Convention. She rose to second a nomination for VP at-large: “When I think of fearlessness, I think of Diana Kilmury. When I think of honesty, I think of Diana Kilmury…it is with joy in my heart that I second the nomination of Diana Kilmury.”...

Gillian and Randy became key organizers for TDU in Minnesota, and she served for a time on the TDU International Steering Committee. She has long been retired, but stayed active, until recently, when her failing health made that impossible.

She was always ready to support a strike and to help workers organize. Her home was frequently a center of activity. As recently as this April, we held a fundraiser at Gillian and Randy’s home, where she delighted in teasing me about various things…

Furst was involved in many Teamster causes, including the famous 1997 strike at UPS. Carey appointed Gillian to the International Teamsters’ first Ethical Practices Committee, and she served on three member judicial panels, hearing cases and issuing findings in complaints brought by rank-and-file members against their union officers.

In 1998, over the objections of the Local 1145 leadership, members at Honeywell organized to vote down a bad local contract—and then ran the strike themselves and won a better deal. Furst established a strike hotline, and her house became the unofficial strike headquarters.

Dan La Botz tells the story in the Labor Notes book A Troublemaker’s Handbook 2:

“At union meetings, the officials can make it hard for the members to speak out,” says [fellow activist Doug] McGilp. “We would get up and speak, but the officials would roll their eyes and their supporters would heckle.”

However, McGilp had learned a trick from observing Furst. “The officers are always sitting up high, so you have to speak up to them. But Gillian always got up, took the mike, turned her back on the officers, and spoke directly to the workers in the hall.”

Just before the membership meeting to vote on the contract proposal, someone leaked information to Furst. The contract was bad, with lower wages and benefits for new-hires. The two activists worked the crowd before the meeting, letting them know what was coming…

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After members forced a strike, they had to force the officers to carry out a real fight and win it:

The negotiating committee was sworn to secrecy about what happened at the table. The TDU activists developed a system to spread whatever up-to-date information they had through the membership.

Furst set up a special phone line in her house with an answering machine that served as the strike hotline. Every day, or even every few hours, she recorded a new message with the latest information. She says, “We made some stickers that said ‘Strike Hotline--Call This Number’ and handed them out and stuck them on every sign and post. That was important because the local officers were trying to block most of the information.”

Most important, the TDU activists put out a one-page strike bulletin. “The strike lasted two weeks, and we put out ten bulletins,” says Furst. “We did them every day except weekends. We would come up with the information, and one of our supporters would help write and edit the articles. Then we would get the bulletins printed and hand them out at the shacks and the gates. We had done leafleting many times. This time people really wanted our bulletins because this was the only information there was.”...

Strikers came up with ideas to make the picket lines fun and keep members involved. Taking a cue from the recent UPS strike, they organized picket line events such as barbecues…. The result, says Furst, was that an incredible number of people who had never been active before came to the picket lines, even when it wasn’t their time of duty.

“A woman I had never thought of as a union activist brought a huge truckload of wood. It was February in Minnesota, and we brought grills to the picket lines so people could warm their hands. People came with coffee, people came with wood to feed the grills. There was no organized committee either, people just did.”...

Furst took the lead in organizing rallies on the picket line. She turned the back of the daily strike bulletin into a rally leaflet. “We invited activists and leaders from other locals that had been on strike,” says McGilp…. “We had three or four hundred people come to each one of these rallies. The union officers also felt they had to come, though they called them ‘Gillian’s rallies.’”

Because the rank and file ran such a well-organized, spirited strike, they won a better contract. And when the next contract came up four years later, the union won major gains without a strike. Honeywell didn't want to face off against a membership that had fought so hard last time.

Furst had many exceptional qualities. In a news obituary in the Star Tribune, reported by Liz Sawyer, some who knew her paid tribute to her talents and character:

For decades, Gillian Furst organized strategic meetings out of her living room, offering rank-and-file workers a safe haven from corporate oversight and a vision for the future of the labor movement.

She would gently lend her ear to every person in attendance, but could be a vigorous taskmaster while leading the charge for change, friends said…

“She was the sparkplug that showed people you don’t have to sit back and take it; you could change it,” said Doug McGilp, friend and fellow Local 1145 Teamster. “Her name isn’t that well known, but it should be.”…

No task was too small for Furst, who volunteered to do grunt work for the Twin Cities branch of the National Organization for Women.

“She [did] jobs that some people might think she was overly qualified for, but she wanted to be right alongside the workers,” said former local NOW President Sue Abderholden.

Eventually Furst, determined to advance the cause of labor, took a job on a Honeywell assembly line making thermostats. She was quickly elected to the union shop committee, where she filed hundreds of grievances and tirelessly waged contract battles on behalf of workers.

As her involvement deepened, Furst was elected to the TDU international steering committee in 1990, playing a key role in getting reform delegates elected to the Teamster convention. With nerves of steel, she stood unwavering amid a sea of dissent to successfully nominate Diana Kilmury, the Teamsters’ first woman international vice president.

Her honesty and forthrightness made her a prime appointment for the union’s first Ethical Practices Committee a few years later.

“If it wasn’t going to be me, my very next choice was Gillian,” Kilmury said. “She was simply a person you could not snow or bribe in any way. And smart as a whip.”

It was a role Furst would endure much abuse for from opponents, but friends and colleagues said she handled it humbly, with an acerbic wit that deflated egos.

Well after her retirement, Furst’s home remained an unofficial headquarters for workers and those wishing to commemorate the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strike, for which she helped plan regular anniversaries.

“I don’t think there was a meeting that wouldn’t end with her pumping her fist and saying ‘We have to act now!’ ” said Chris Serres, a fellow collaborator and an investigative reporter at the Star Tribune.

Memorials may be sent to the Teamster Rank & File Education and Legal Defense Foundation, the sister organization of TDU; Women Against Military Madness; and the East Side Freedom Library. A memorial program celebrating Gillian's life will be held Saturday, August 29, in St. Paul.