Honoring a Hero and an Heroic Initiative- Rich Klimmer and Labor's Grass Roots Campaign Against Racism During the 2008 Presidential Election
Dr Mark Naison
As a critical midterm election in the career of President Barack Obama approaches, I want to take this opportunity to honor a friend, Rich Klimmer, who recently passed away after a long illness. Rich, an historian and an organizer for the college division of the American Federation of Teachers, and for the last ten years of his life, an amputee, helped coordinate the labor campaign for Obama in the state of Pennsylvania out of a hotel room and hospital bed. I want to tell Rich’s story not only to commemorate an extraordinary life, but to remind people of the sacrifices and the daily heroism of those who helped elect Barack Obama President in 2008. Rich was part and parcel of a remarkable grassroots effort, conducted in homes, in workplaces and union halls- to convince white working class voters in Pennsylvania to overcome their racism and vote for a Black man for President. Rich, like his friend Frank Snyder, and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumpka, who was then in Pennsylvania, helped engineer something unprecedented in the history of anti racist activism in the US- having union members go door to door in white working class neighborhoods and talk with people about their racial prejudices and racial fears. Without such an effort, Barack Obama would not have won the state of Pennsylvania and other states like it, and probably would not have been elected President
To understand why Rich Klimmer put his life and health on the line- literally- to organize this campaign, you have to know something of Rich’s background. Rich grew up in the 1950’s in a white working class neighborhood of Chicago filled with union members and people who worked in Mayor Daley’s political machine. Although his neighborhood was all white, Rich, who was a terrific basketball player, started meeting Black kids through CYO and high school basketball games, and by the time he graduated from high school started identifying with the civil rights movement . That identification continued when Rich went to Marquette College, where he played on great basketball teams coached by the legendary Al McGuire, whose star players were predominantly Black. When Rich started graduate school at Marquette, he was a committed anti-racist, but still had the earthy, hard edged, persona he had developed in his Chicago neighborhood and was determined to find some way to include his friends and family in the political transformation he had started to undergo. Unlike many anti-war radicals, who came from middle class suburban families, there wasn’t an ounce of elitism in Rich’s body. Working class Americans were his people, warts and all.
Rich was a character. When I first met him at a meeting of the Radical Caucus of the Organization of American Historians in 1969, he stood out in a crowd, not only for his size – he was 6”3- and good looks, but for this thick Chicago accent and prodigious drinking abilities. We started talking and I gravitated toward him as a kindred spirit. Like Rich, I had grown up in a working class neighborhood and had played college sports, and like Rich, I was uncomfortable with activists who grew up in wealthy families. We started corresponding, sharing our historical work, and hanging out together at conventions. Rich became one of my best friends in the historical profession.
When Rich gravitated from full time teaching into becoming a union organizer, we became even closer. Rich was not only an incredible organizer- tireless, creative, charismatic and utterly fearless- he knew more about labor history and the contemporary labor movement than anyone I knew. Rich was the first one I would call when I was developing a course syllabus dealing with labor history or working class life. He knew every book in the field and had an intuitive understanding of what kind of arguments students would relate to.
I also enjoyed hearing Rich’s stories about life on the road. The life of a union organizer, now as throughout American history, doesn’t take place in offices, and apartments, it finds its center of gravity in hotel rooms, bars, on street corners and the inside of automobiles. It is a life of constant pressure, little sleep, rushed meals, strong coffee, and in the case of Rich, chain smoking and hard drinking.
Over time, the organizers life took a terrible toll on Rich’s health, he developed lung problems, circulatory problems, kidney problems and had to have a leg amputated. But Rich refused to stop. By the time he was sixty years old, he had had more than forty operations and was on dialysis, which required him to go into a hospital for blood transfusions three days a week, but was still functioning as an election strategist and a valued advisor in AFT organizing campaigns.
I watched Rich’s health fail with growing alarm. He was in constant pain and discomfort and frankly I don’t know how he could keep going to the hospital for one operation after another. But his will to live was strong- even though he refused to stop smoking-and he had a simmering rage at how working class organizing rights were being stripped away and working class incomes were stagnating in a nation where corporations and the wealthy were being given a free ride.
So when his friend Frank Snyder came to his hospital bed and offered Rich a chance to help coordinate labor’s campaign for Obama in the state of Pennyslvania, Rich pushed himself to the limit to get out of the hospital one more time. With Frank’s help, he found a hotel in Philadelphia close enough to a hospital where Rich could go for dialysis and he set himself up there for the last three months of the Presidential campaign.
I spoke to, or emailed Rich almost every day during those three months, getting his reports on an extraordinary effort to convince white union members throughout the state to vote for Barack Obama. Rich had incredible stories of young white construction workers going door to door with Obama literature and being cursed out in some houses, welcomed in other. Or of Obama signs going up in row houses on blocks in South Philadelphia where Black people were once afraid to walk ( get your visuals for this from “Rocky” movies.) Of tough white cab drivers and doormen who hung out at the hotel explaining to Rich why they had decided to vote for Obama because they couldn’t stand seeing their kids being sent off to war while college kids got a free pass. Or of the young Irish waitress at the coffee shop hear the hotel showing Rich the Obama pin on her coat which she couldn’t wear at work, but which she proudly sported on her ride and walk home. Or of Richard Trumpka’s amazing speech where he said there is only one reason why a union worker would vote against Barack Obama, and that was racism, and where he talked openly about the racism he confronted in his own union and his own family.
Rich also shared his informal polls with me and through much of the campaign, the results were hardly comforting. Many union workers in Pennsylvania remained “undecided” until the last days of the election and Rich feared that all the hard work he had done might not be enough. But then, in the last week of the campaign, Rich began to tell me “ I think we’re going to pull this off.” The undecided union voters were starting to go for Obama and the night before the election Rich had begun to predict victory.
Rich never got to celebrate the Obama victory with his union colleagues. The day of the election, he was hospitalized with an attack and had to watch the returns on television. At 11 PM, when the outcome was clear, I called Rich in the hospital and we let out a scream together. My wife and I were in tears because we had watched history being made, but Rich Klimmer had MADE history!!! I was so proud of what he had done, and so honored to be his friend
When the election was over, Rich and I sat down together and made plans to write a book about the Labor Campaign for Obama in the state of Pennsylvania, which he called “Class Struggle Against Racism”
We did a seven hour oral history with Rich, going from his early years in Chicago, through his own political evolution, to his transformation from college professor to union organizer, to a detailed day by day report of his three months of work in the Obama campaign. We then did another seven hours of interviews with Frank Snyder, the head of the AFL-CIO in Pennsylvania, who worked closely with Rich during the campaign, and travelled all over the state in the course of his work
We were getting ready to interview Richard Trumpka, when, Rich got sick, really sick. He had to be hospitalized, not just for a few days, but for months. He would call me about the latest operation he had to have, and the physical therapy he had to go through, and I thought, I could NEVER go through what he was going through. I consider myself a tough guy, but I was not that tough. Not even close
Then I got a call from Rich’s wife Lynn about a month ago. Rich, Lynn told me, had finally decided he had suffered enough. A deeply religious Catholic, Rich calmly said goodbye to Lynn, called for his priest to administer last rites, and died in his sleep.
As I grappled with meaning of Rich’s death, I of course thought of the loss to his friends and family. Rich was a great guy, the life of the party, someone who lit up every room he was in, someone who made everyone he talked to think they were the most important person in the world
But the thing that kept coming back to me was Rich’s contribution to one of the great moments in modern American history. I know many progressive people, including some labor people, are disappointed with the Obama Presidency, but we should never forget what came before it and how hard people worked, and how much they sacrificed to make Barack Obama President
No one, least of all Rich Klimmer, thought it was going to be easy to elect Barack Obama president, and no one should think that transforming that victory into reforms that improve the lives of working class Americans was going be any easier. As my friend Professor Henry Taylor once told me, it took 30 years to dismantle the tax and income policies made post WWII America one of the most equal nations in the industrialized world, and it may take 30 years to restore them.
So don’t be discouraged that “Change” is not coming instantaneously. Without hard grunt work by millions of people on the local level, reinforcing the efforts of progressive elected officials, we cannot hope to narrow the gap between rich and poor, rebuild our infrastructure, adopt sane environmental policies, and extract ourselves from destructive and expensive wars.
Even small incremental change requires incredible expenditures of energy. So when you are thinking things look hopeless, or that your efforts to change our country don’t matter, think of the work of Rich Klimmer and thousands of others like him who sacrificed so that real democracy might live. And then roll up your sleeves and get back to work
I miss you, Rich, but your example lives on
Rest in Peace, My Brother
You Made History.
October 7, 2010