In my lifetime, the Labor Union movement in the United States has been led by three titans.

Before Trump invented fake news, Life Magazine published it.












The first ( and in many ways the most significant) titan was/is the late Jimmy Hoffa. His genius in creating a universal contract that included even independent drivers has created a center of strength in the Teamsters Union. The result is that in a country where so many of us believe that milk comes from a grocery carton, it is Teamsters Union and not farmers who ensure we receive the food we eat.

Jimmy Hoffa’s son now leads this powerful union which negotiates for its members a living wage. In this time of Trump’s failure to work for anyone but fat cats, it is the Union movement that is keeping the American dream alive.


George Meany made and broke Presidents. George Meany made it possible for President Jimmy Carter to serve in the White House.














The second titan was/is George Meany. As head of the AFL-CIO, George Meany alone and in concert (smoking cigars at his annual meetings in Florida and from AFL-CIO headquarters in DC ( a stones throw away from the White House) gave our country so many of the social programs and advances in equal rights it is impossible to enumerate Crusty George’s benevolence. Without George Meany would there be the landmark Civil Act of 1964? Without George Meany there would be no Medicare, no Medicaid, Social Security for the disabled and elderly too poor or infirm to contribute to the Social Security Trust Fund.

Without George Meany workers would not be protected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, pensioners would not receive protection against gonnifs, fair labor standards would not be protected, union elections would not take place fairly, the rights of minorities and women….


Without Walter Reuther, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would not have delivered his I have a dream speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Here is Walter Reuther at the March on Washington. I was there.

The third titan was/ is Walter Reuther. Of the three I cherish his memory the most. I understand my love for Jimmy Hoffa and George Meany, but with Walter Reuther I cannot resist it. Without George Meany Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Would not have delivered his mountaintop speech 54 years ago in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

Without Walter Reuther,  there probably would not have been a university at Anne Arbor or decent public school, college, and university education for the daughters and sons of automobile workers. Reuters’ prescience protected the children of workers from the reality he foresaw of an automobile industry gone global, become increasingly automated, require fewer workers on the assembly line.



The best love is loving a lover who loves unions

The best love is loving a lover who loves unions.

When I was 28, I had a passionate affair with Laura. I remember distinctly meeting her mother and incredible brothers in a fashionable French restaurant in Georgetown. Brent and Josh took over the small restaurant serenading us with “I Dreamt I saw Joe Hill Last Night”.

This is a strong dream.


My grandmother (my Bubbie Celia) did uplifting work protected by David Dubinsky’s International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU)

As with so many of us, I was truly raised by my grandmother who loved me so. Celia often repented what she regarded as the folly of her youth. At 16, she went to a silent movie theater and fell in love with Salvatore Pellicia, who played the clarinet and whom she claimed dazzled her with his uniform.

They ran away. Her Jewish father jailed my grandfather. After Salvatore’s third time in jail, Bubbie’s father gave up and mourned his daughter for dead for having married outside the faith. My grandfather took up the saxophone–the sexiest instrument in the musical repertoire at the time. My mother was born while Salavatore was on a gig in Lexington, Kentucky.

David Dubinsky with Robert Kennedy

The twin evils of talking pictures and the Great Depression put my grandfather out of work. Severe sickness set in. He was hospitalized at a Veteran’s facility in Staten Island where he died shortly before my birth.

Bubbie was surrounded by poverty and despair. Hat in hand, she returned to her Jewish family which raised my mother. Her brother Abe did not speak to her for 10 years. Even so, Abe was an accountant and he found work for Bubbie in the fashion district doing piecework, sewing bras and girdles. Work she later described, cigarette in hand as “uplifting.”

It was hard work. Often, I visited her at he shop where she worked for decades under union contract. At night she played Beethoven and Chopin deliberately hiring a demanding teacher and often complaining that her hands were too small to scan the scales. She was frugal, fed pigeons and cats, and saved her money which everyone in the family borrowed including my father. The union-made her strong. It especially made me strong. Solidarity forever.


Cesar Chavez, Walter Reuther, and the Teamsters Union

When I was 28, I was in small hotel in California close to the mountain headquarters at tehachapi (of Maltese Falcon fame) where Cesar Chavez had his headquarters. His staff had been donated by Walter Reuther’s UAW.


On March 10th, 1968, Cesar Chavez breaks his 25-day fast by accepting bread from Senator Robert Kennedy, Delano, California. In June of the same year, Senator Kennedy was shot and killed on the same day he won the California Presidential Democratic Primary
Left to right: Helen Chavez, Robert Kennedy, Cesar Chavez


On the morning before my interview with Cesar Chavez, later published on the front cover of The New Republic, I took a shower. There I discovered a lump under my right arm which was later diagnosed as Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system which a generation earlier had been universally fatal within two years of diagnosis.

Delaying cancer surgery, to the discomfiture of my oncologist, I waited until finishing my article on Cesar Chavez whom I had idolized for years.

My managing editor David Sanford, patiently waited as I produced thousands of words not touching them but simply sending them back until I got it right. What I got right, to my consternation, was the clear conclusion that while a great figure, Chavez did a rotten job of administering his union. Unlike Chavez, the Teamsters organizers in the area were superb knowing details of the contracts that Chavez glossed over because he was seeking political support for urban constituents outside the grape fields. After publication and after painful surgery, my publisher Martin Peretz and, of course, David were please by Chavez’s empty threat to sue the New Republic and me for libel. Still in the hospital, my sadly late friend Patric Mullen, lobbyist for the National Sharecroppers Fund ferried over to my hospital bed angry letters from nuns.



Certainly that bothered. However, I knew the Teamsters were doing the job and Cesar wasn’t.  From my days at Scanlan’s Monthly, I spent much time with Teamsters officials who had been harassed by Robert Kennedy (who daily I regret he did not become President) in the days when Kennedy was attorney general, young and ruthless, not yet repenting the error of his ways after reading Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphophis.”


Samuel Gompers: “We do want more.”


“We stand on the shoulders of giants.”

  1. International Brotherhood of Teamsters.





3. UAW



–Brother Joel

Copyright © 2017 by Joel Solkoff. All rights reserved.

How a 10 cent increase in the minimum wage put me on page one of the Centre Daily Times

Note: Sunday, September 9, 2012, State College, PA 5:57 PM, EDT.  My friend Philip Moery is fond of quoting William Faulkner’s observation, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even the past.” This observation became trenchant yesterday when I received a post from Scott W., who, like me, is a member of a lively discussion group on politics. Scott W. sent group members an article for comment entitled, “Why the Minimum Wage Doesn’t Explain Stagnant Wages.”

As it turns out, I have a part-time job at Penn State‘s virtual reality laboratory for the construction industry where I am paid a minimum wage out of funds provided by Experience Works,  a U.S. Department of Labor program for disabled and elderly individuals.

As my sister Sarah Schmerler points out, brevity is not my strong suit. I will delay additional comments on  the subject until you have the opportunity to read the story which appeared on page one–indeed the event taking place on a slow July news day, it was not only an above-the-fold front page story, it was the lead story in the Centre Daily Times published in State College PA. The occasion was the increase in July 2009 to $7.25 cents an hour. Reporter Nick Malawskey asked me how I felt about earning an additional 10 cents an hour. Below is the story as published.

While interviewing me, I told Nick about that marvelous song, “7 1/2 cents” from the musical comedy The Pajama Game. The Pajama Game, which first appeared on Broadway in 1954 and became a Doris-Day-starring movie in 1957–a movie I vividly remember but understandably before Nick’s time. After the article appeared, I emailed Nick the MP3 of “7 1/2 cents” which I had purchased on iTunes, but sadly the Centre Daily Times’ email system limited the bandwidth of emails to reporters. What with one thing and another, Nick never had the opportunity to hear the song.

For your  pleasure, here is Doris Day on YouTube:

The following is the lead story that appeared on Friday, July 24, 2009 of the Centre Daily Times (known locally as “The CDT“). Readers are encouraged to subscribe to the hard-copy version of the CDT not only to learn when, if ever, I receive another 10-cent an hour increase in pay. Also, the CDT has been covering in detail the aftermath of the child molestation scandal at Penn State, the largest employer in the county. This scandal has thus far hit Centre County with greater force than a 9.o earthquake on the  Richter Magnitude Scale.

After the article, see Afternote.


Friday, Jul. 24, 2009


Workers praise 10 cent increase

Nick Malawskey

STATE COLLEGE — While most companies are scaling back on annual raises this year, about 15 million Americans will receive at least a small bump in pay today when the federal minimum wage increases to $7.25 an hour.

In Pennsylvania, the wage increase will amount to only 10 cents an hour for the roughly 200,000 people who earn the standard. That’s because Pennsylvania raised its minimum wage above the federal standard to $7.15 per hour two years ago.

But those living on the margin say every little bit helps.

In Centre County, the region’s largest employer — Penn State — said the increase will affect about 240 of its part-time workers.

They include Joel Solkoff, who works part-time at the university through Experience Works, an employment training program for older or disabled Pennsylvanians.

“I guess there are two sides to it,” said Solkoff, a 61-year-old technical writer. “One is that any increase in income, especially if you make as little as I do, is appreciated.”

Solkoff, who is disabled, uses his monthly earning to supplement his Social Security income while building skills he hopes will land him a permanent job.

“The other aspect of it is that one hopes that the work that you’re doing will be appreciated,” he said. “And the encouragement that comes from getting a little more money in your paycheck is very much appreciated. It serves as an inducement for me to continue doing this, so I can get out in the marketplace and find a job that gets me off Social Security.”

Penn State said the wage hike will increase the university system’s payroll costs by only about $15,000 a year.

Relatively few county workers are affected, with most convenience and retail stores reporting they already pay workers more than the minimum wage. The county’s second largest employer, the State College Area School District, said none of its 1,100-plus workers will be affected.

Still, not everyone welcomes the increase.

“Wage hikes always cause a spike in the unemployment rate, and with the country in the middle of a recession, businesses are already struggling to make ends meet,” said Kristen Lopez Eastlick, a senior research analyst at the Employment Policies Institute in Washington, D.C. “The economy will continue to hemorrhage entry-level jobs unless legislators stop this summer’s minimum wage hike from happening.”

Despite the increases, the federal minimum wage has not kept pace with inflation.

David Passmore, with Penn State’s Workforce Education and Development program, said the gap between average and minimum wage pay of nonsupervisory workers has grown remarkably since the 1970s.

“When you take in the erosion of purchasing power through inflation, the so-called ‘real’ minimum wage has declined by one-third since 1968,” he said in an e-mail.

Passmore said the effects of an increase in the minimum wage are often complex.

“In Pennsylvania, it is estimated that 8.9 percent of the workforce were affected by a minimum wage increase in 2009 amounting to 7.8 percent of wages,” he wrote. “At the same time, the minimum wage increase is estimated to have brought about an 0.37 percent increase in production costs (fuel, capital, labor) and a 0.25 percent decrease in Pennsylvania employment.”

Solkoff has a different perspective.

“Minimum wage is supposed to guarantee that those people on the lowest part of the ladder will be given a wage that is minimally fair — high enough to support life and so on,” he said, adding that in his case, it will help pay the rent, buy a few extra cups of coffee at Webster’s — and, he said, help support the economy.

“That’s going to be economic stimulus money that I will be helping the economy out with,” he said with a laugh. “I’m not saving that 10 cents.”

Nick Malawskey can be reached at 235-3928.


Afternote: During the Carter Administration (where I earned considerably more than minimum wage), I served as Special Assistant to Deputy Secretary of Labor Robert J. Brown for whom I wrote several speeches on the minimum wage. Jimmy Carter would never have been elected President without the support of George Meany, President of the AFL-CIO. For those who remember the power of organized labor to affect national policy, George Meany remains sui generis. In writing about the minimum wage, I was loyal to Meany’s insistence on the significance of the minimum wage in preserving a floor for a national standard of living and for defending other legislation such as the Davis-Bacon Act providing a more-livable “prevailing wage” which helped  women and men working on federally funded projects become members of the middle-class as a result of their hard work. [Permission to use Time Magazine’s marvelous cover is requested.]

Even with the best of intentions, Walter Shapiro, whom last I heard was a columnist for USA Today, originally brought me in to the Labor Department to write a minimum wage speech for Secretary Ray Marshall. With the assistance of Tom Connoly, my drumming instructor, who also is helping me organize my files, I plan to locate the speech Walter and I wrote on the minimum wage which resulted in unanticipated consequences. Don’t leave this site; a copy of the speech with a story to go with it will be coming soon.