This is long, but interesting to read something of the man who was an inspiration to a young seeker of municipal office. Stephen, who as a teen was the first person to get a Blue Jersey account after founder Juan Melli, is a candidate for municipal office in Berkeley Heights. – Rosi
After I published my last article here (thank you to everyone who commented on it), I received an e-mail from a New Jersey friend of mine, and a sometime-Democratic activist. My friend wrote, in part:
“What the **** gives you the right to call out Sweeney? He was a labor leader when you were in diapers.”
No, I’m not in a union. I don’t believe graduate students have a union to join, although I could be wrong. And no, I don’t have the “credentials” of Senator Sweeney when it comes to a labor background.
But I can tell you this – the movement for workers to gain their freedom is in my blood. Were it not for organizers like my Grandpa Harry, a Gloucester County ironworker could never have become the leader of the New Jersey State Senate.
My grandfather didn’t speak at labor rallies. He just organized them.
If you attended the Labor Day Parade in New York City during the 60s, 70s or 80s, Harry Avrutin was the one to thank for making it happen. He was the Parade’s organizer and manager for over 2 decades, as part of the New York City Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO.
If you wanted to buy products that only had the “union label” on them, Harry Avrutin was with you 110%. He ran the union label effort for the Tri-State area for 39 years, until the day he died.
If you wanted to organize your fellow workers into a union, or audition for “Miss Union Maid”, or schedule a speech at a union hall to woo members, you first called Harry Avrutin.
I tell you this not to boast, but to provide the context for why I stand with the workers of New Jersey in this moment of crisis.
My grandpa was born in Philadelphia, but moved to New York City as a boy. His father was a ironworker, his mother a seamstress. Both were activists and (like most organizers of the period) ardent Socialists. Not the stereotypical “Reds” that conservatives have shoe-horned every member of that movement into – just working-class Americans who wanted a better future for their children, and saw no relief from the political leaders of the day.
So they organized. They taught my grandpa the importance of collective action, of building coalitions to challenge the business magnates who sought to enforce Social Darwinism on their workers. “Survival of the Fittest” is an inhumane doctrine, and my grandfather learned that the only way to stop its application was to organize.
There is a photograph from 1935 that shows Grandpa Harry leading a group of Manhattan office workers on strike. They wear barrels and shoes, nothing else. He stands on the sidewalk to their right , letting the strikers take the spotlight. He was just 19 years old when the photo was taken. Knowing that I am 23, and have done far less than he did at this age, is a motivating force for me each and every day.
Workers were demanding the basic freedoms that all human beings deserve, freedoms that far too many are denied today. For indeed, the freedom to come together and demand a better quality of life is a human right. Big businesses were trying to stop their workers any way they could – in illegal ways, too – from gaining that freedom. If their workers came together and collectively bargained for higher wages and better working conditions, the “Captains of Industry” would lose.
The magnates did lose in that era, at least most of the time. The Wagner Act of 1935 helped, as did the Democratic Party’s embrace of labor unions under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. By the end of World War II, over 1/3rd of American workers had organized into unions. People like Grandpa Harry made it possible.
It wasn’t easy. Just as Civil Rights marchers and activists were beaten, jailed and (sometimes) murdered, so were strikers and union organizers a generation before. My grandfather earned virtually no income for his work as an organizer until the end of the 1940s; his reward came from seeing workers endure and succeed despite this pressure.
Once, when an OPEIU (Office and Professional Employees International) strike was under attack from strikebreakers, a “scab” stuck a gun to my grandfather’s head. Other organizers saw it, but could do nothing – strikers carried signs and banners, not pistols.
Grandpa Harry turned to face the scab, and said in a loud, clear voice, “Pull the trigger. Go ahead.”
Perhaps the scab looked at my Grandpa – kind eyes, thick glasses, balding head, always a friendly smile that said “Welcome to the movement” – and saw a human being and not a “Communist” caricature. Maybe he got scared (unlikely – Grandpa allegedly wouldn’t hurt a fly). Either way, he ran away.
In all the 50+ years Grandpa Harry organized, only once did he fail to make it home at night to my Nana. He didn’t want the limelight, or the publicity of being jailed for his efforts. He just wanted the workers he was helping succeed in achieving their goals, be it for higher pay, shorter hours, better conditions or something else.
In an interview he taped in 1981, he stated:
“I believe labor unions are all-American at heart. We are patriots that fight for the same freedom the Founding Fathers sought 2 centuries ago – the right to rise or fall on our own merits.”
(He had grown a Ben Franklin-style hairdo by this time, which may have had an influence on his choice of comparison. Or not)
As I said, my grandfather was never a “leader” in the sense of getting newspapers and TV networks to tell his story. He left that to better orators and stronger voices, people like Harry Van Arsdale, his boss for over 30 years. When he died, the New York Times obituary was published a week later and was just 3 paragraphs long (it also got my Aunt’s name wrong, but I digress).
My grandfather’s last public work came while he was dying from cancer. The Coors Brewing company, which actively denied its workers the right to organize, had begun to set up shop in the Tri-State area. Grandpa Harry organized a mass boycott and made sure Coors ran back to Colorado with its tail between its legs. It gave me great pleasure to see Pete Coors lose a US Senate race to Ken Salazar in 2004.
I was born 2 months after Harry Avrutin died; were it not for my grandmother’s point-blank refusal, I would be writing this as Harry Stephen Yellin, not Stephen Harry Yellin. No matter; my mother has filled my life with the stories of my Grandpa, and I feel his spirit of activism grow within me with each passing year.
He is why I got involved in politics at the age of 13. He is why I ran for Township Council at the age of 22, and am doing so again this year. He is why I am a Democrat – because I believe in the rights of workers, and so do most Democrats. It makes more sense than siding with the party of scabs and strikebreakers
Senator Sweeney has been a labor leader for a long time. Perhaps, like many labor leaders of the 70s and 80s, he has settled too comfortably into a different kind of organization. He is entitled to push for legislation as he (and his patron) sees fit. I am equally entitled to oppose what he, Sheila Oliver and Chris Christie are doing, whatever my friend may say.
Were Harry Avrutin still alive, he would have been in Trenton yesterday. He wouldn’t have spoken, as usual, but he would have made sure that the workers were well-prepared and ready to respond to pressure of any kind. He would have made sure food and water were available for anyone who needed it. And he would have made sure that those arrested for speaking out at the Budget Committee meeting were set free at once, as they were.
Instead, he is spinning furiously in his grave, as a union man is set to turn back the proverbial clock on much of what my Granpda spend his whole life fighting for. My hand is not strong enough to stop the turning of the clock. Nor, I fear, are all our hands enough together.
Only by standing firm on our principles, and then seek to start anew in New Jersey, can those who believe in the fundamental rights of workers everywhere win this war. As I wrote Wednesday night, I know what side I’m on.
I don’t stand with Steve Sweeney. I stand with Harry Avrutin.