Thursday, February 16, 2012

Goodbye, Frank Schonfeld

Frank Schonfeld, an eminent spokesman and leader in the battle for union democracy, died in November at the age of 95. A memorial gathering is planned for Sunday, February 26, 2012, at 2:00 p.m., to be held at Vladeck Hall, 74 Van Cortlandt Park South (corner Hillman Avenue), Bronx, NY 10463. (Nearest subway stops are: IRT 4 (Woodlawn) to Mosholu Pkwy (and Jerome Ave); IND D (205th St) to Bedford Park Blvd (and Grand Concourse); IRT 1 (242nd St) to 238th St (and Broadway))

Among the many things Frank and I shared was a birthday. We were both born on July 9, except that I was one year older than him. That's my way of saying that at 96 years of age and biologically degraded, I find it hard to get around. I'm sorry I can't be with you, but I must at least WRITE something about my good old friend Frank Schonfeld.

I first met Frank in 1961. He was a house-painter and member of the big Painters District Council 9 in New York. He had decided to run for the top job of DC 9 secretary-treasurer as part of a campaign to free the union from control by the Lucchese crime family. As the publisher of a little newsletter, Union Democracy in Action, which aimed to tell the story of union reformers like him, my first reaction was nonetheless that he had illusions of grandeur. With just himself and a half-dozen active supporters in a union of maybe 12,000 members, he expected to overcome a bunch of crooks backed by organized crime!

But he turned out to be genuine, and he turned out to be right. That year marked the beginning of 50 years of close collaboration and friendship between Frank and me.

When he first ran for top office in 1961, he did surprisingly well. In a union where no one was watching the ballot count, he was credited with one-third of the votes. In some locals, where he was able to campaign vigorously, he actually won a majority. He persevered, built a caucus of maybe a dozen activists, ran and did a little better in 1964.

Early in 1966, came a tense and dangerous moment. Dow Wilson, a Painters reform leader in California, with whom Frank had been coordinating efforts, was murdered and a month later Lloyd Green, a Wilson colleague, was shot to death. I remember telephoning Frank on the day before he was to fly to California for their memorial. In the background, his daughter Sari, fearful of his safety was crying and begging him not to go. But Frank would not be dissuaded.

In 1967 at last there was an honest count. In an election ordered by a Federal judge and supervised by a court appointee, Frank defeated Martin Rarback who had held the top job for twenty years. (Rarback later went to jail on corruption charges.) For Frank it was a spectacular victory, and yet, it opened up what was probably the most physically and emotionally stressful six years of his life, with dawn to dusk hours of work.

While he had been elected by direct vote of the membership to the top district position, most of the old-line business agents still controlled the locals and dominated the council of delegates. They remained in collusion with the bosses and had the support of the international union officials to undermine his authority. Those same business agents supported raids by a corrupted Teamster local against Painters DC 9. He faced a raid from the Carpenters union. He faced hostility from the New York City Housing Authority. I knew about all that because I worked with Frank in all those nerve-wracking years.

By sheer determination and working those interminable hours, Frank held on for six years. But he did more than just hold on. He led a general strike of New York painters that effectively raised wages 93% and increased pensions by 44%. He took the pension plan out of the hands of a suspect administration and put it under professional control. He warded off two raids by the Teamsters and a long raid attempt by the Carpenters. He democratized the election system. When he ran for reelection in 1970, he faced a concerted drive by the business agents, the international, the Teamsters, and the agents of the Lucchese family to defeat him. By a near miracle he beat them off to win reelection.

But after a second three year term, the balance of power had shifted. During Frank's six years in office, the business agents, with the aid of cooperating bosses, succeeded in bringing in a whole new army of employees beholden to them for jobs. Open Schonfeld supporters often found it difficult to get work. In 1973, Jimmy Bishop, chosen as candidate by organized crime, edged out Frank for secretary-treasurer. How do we know Bishop was the mob's candidate? A few years later he was forced to resign and was then murdered; a victim of a falling out among racketeers.

Frank went back to work as a house-painter. He could earn good money and retire on a generous pension because he now could enjoy everything he himself had helped win for painters. Not only painters, but the whole labor movement has benefited from Frank's career as a courageous union reformer. While still an insurgent in 1962, Frank supported the cause of Solomon Salzhandler, an old-time painter and treasurer of DC 9 Local 442 who had been fined and suspended for accusing his business agent, who had stolen money, of stealing money. Frank helped recruit a young attorney, Burton Hall to represent Salzhandler in Federal Court. They won the famous case of Salzhandler v. Caputo, the landmark case which established a firm basis in federal law for the rights of free speech in unions.

I must mention one part of Frank's life because he would talk about it over and over, in public meetings and in private. His life was self-fulfilling, but it was all-consuming and always on the margin. He could survive and do great things only because he had the unwavering moral and practical support from his wonderful wife, Jean. If he could be here today, he would make it an important part of what he had to say.

Once Frank was relieved of the burdens of union leadership, and then finally in retirement, his life took a new and quite different turn. Our long collaboration in the cause of union democracy led to a warm and continuing friendship. I introduced him to the great outdoors of Mother Nature. Together we co-owned some 40 acres of abandoned farmland and a pond in Bradford New York, where we bushwhacked through the woods and worked to rescue a crumbling hundred-year-old farmhouse. Frank was fascinated by the grass, the flowers, the trees, the bushes and the wetlands. Like one great poet, he learned "To see a World in a grain of sand and a Heaven in a wild flower."

Others can speak of what he did and what he accomplished in later years. I must end with this: Goodbye, my old friend Frank. We had great times together.