Harry Kelber, a union activist for nearly 80 years who was never shy about criticizing the union movement’s leadership—constructively, he maintained—died Sunday in New York. He was 98. On his 98th birthday in June, Kelber had announced he planned to run for the AFL-CIO presidency at the federation’s upcoming September convention.
During the Depression, Kelber helped organize a strike of grocery store workers after he was fired. He began his writing career in 1939 as the editor of two labor newspapers, where he reported extensively on CIO organizing campaigns. He spent several years as a union printer and was heavily involved in the 1962–1963 strike that shut down New York City’s major newspapers for 114 days.
Kelber was also an educator and academic, with a Ph.D. in American civilization from New York University; he taught at several colleges. He wrote regular weekly columns for his website The Labor Educator until February. He also established a Facebook page.
In 2005, Kelber, then 91, was given an opportunity to address the AFL-CIO convention, where not surprisingly he called for changes in the union movement from leadership to communications to organizing. But he also told the more than 1,500 union members in attendance:
I am with you 100 percent. I have been committed to this labor movement for over 72 years and I intend to stay that way. We are going to fight together. I am not going to yield.…As long as I live I will do my best to work with you.
His autobiography, My 70 Years in the Labor Movement, is available through The Labor Educator.
Kelber is survived by three daughters: Karli, Kathryn and Laura Kelber.