Harry Kelber, Labor Activist, Agitator, Journalist, Dies at 98

NEW YORK —Labor activist, agitator and journalist Harry Kelber, longtime writer and editor of The Labor Educator and crusader/critic of AFL-CIO leaders, practices and perpetuation in office, died March 31 in New York City. He was 98.

Starting as a union printer in 1939, Kelber carved out a career for himself in New York liberal and sometimes radical unionism, challenging established authority and agitating for open and democratic procedures within the labor movement.

He carried that crusade into criticism of the AFL-CIO’s traditional willingness to side with the U.S. government on foreign policy – a willingness the AFL-CIO abandoned when convention delegates agreed with Kelber and U.S. Labor Against The War and openly opposed the GOP Bush government’s war in Iraq.

Kelber even became an at-large candidate for a seat on the AFL-CIO Executive Council in 1995. The council, which includes union presidents, the fed’s top officials and others, traditionally fields an unchallenged slate for re-election. By petitioning his way onto the ballot that year, Kelber forced an election at the convention. He lost.

But it gave him a platform to air the issues he was concerned about: Agitation for activism in the streets, leaders’ accountability and rank-and-file-based democracy. Kelber was stressing those same issues, in a race he admitted he would not win, challenging AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka this year for the fed’s top job.

Kelber started as editor of two weekly labor papers in 1939, the Labor Educator’s website says. In recent years, he wrote books on organizing and mobilizing and weekly columns on national and international labor issues. He edited the strike bulletin during the 114-day 1962-63 New York City newspaper strike, was past education and cultural director of Electrical Workers Local 3, coordinated the New York City Central Labor Council’s leadership institute and directed a 2-year labor-liberal arts program at Cornell University’s New York City branch. He was a former member of the Communications Workers. A memorial service will be held in May or June.

– PAI