James Lerner, Labor Editor, Organizer Dies

September 23, 2003

James Lerner, an outstanding labor journalist whose work for UE spanned six decades, died Sept. 20 after a long illness. He was 92.

Lerner was born in New York in 1911. He attended City College there in 1927-28, then spent almost an academic year at the Experimental College at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Forced out because of lack of money, he returned home and held a variety of jobs.

As a young worker in the Great Depression, Jim Lerner looked for answers to the hardship around him and to activism for change. At a public meeting, Lerner stood up and challenged the president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), William Green, who had echoed the employers’ arguments that unemployment compensation would make workers "lazy."

FIGHTING WAR AND FASCISM

In 1933, Lerner became National Youth Director of the American League Against War and Fascism (after 1936 called the American League for Peace and Democracy), a coalition embracing a number of organizations concerned about conditions at home and ominous developments abroad.

His career as a journalist began with a monthly column to the League’s magazine. He authored two anti-war pamphlets published by the League in 1934 and 1936. As a member of a U.S. delegation, he visited war-torn Spain, where workers battled to preserve their democratic republic then under attack by General Franco and an army supplied by Hitler and Mussolini.

Meanwhile, electrical and radio workers had organized UE, and the Mineworkers had led a movement out of the AFL into a new federation, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Jim Lerner went to work for Trade Union Services, an agency that prepared newspapers for the new unions coming into existence in the late 1930s organizing upsurge. He assisted with various UE editions of the weekly People’s Press.

ON THE UE STAFF

Lerner came to work for the union in June 1940, just a year and a half after the UE NEWS was launched.

In 1989 he recalled that experience: "Laid off from a job at a New York City plastics plant where I was paid 30 cents an hour (a UE business agent had warned me, correctly, that it was a ‘slave job’), I applied for work on the UE NEWS in the summer of 1940 because I knew of the union’s rank-and-file character."

The union’s growth since its founding in March 1936 enabled UE to launch its own newspaper. "Fortunately for me, there was an opening on the paper, as one of three staff members had just left to take a job on a commercial press service," he wrote.

"The very first story I was assigned to write by Managing Editor Tom Wright was printed under the headline ´10,000 More Join UE in First Three Months of 1940.´"

Among many other assignments, as a staff writer Lerner covered the federal anti-trust case against General Electric and the Krupp company of Germany. The two firms were charged with having conspired to maintain a worldwide monopoly of tungsten carbide. The outbreak of World War II delayed the trial until 1947. Except for the opening days of that trial, Lerner was the only journalist in the courtroom.

Lerner served as part of talented UE NEWS staff at a time when the paper came out weekly. Among others, he worked with Wright, a Schenectady newspaperman who lost his job trying to organize a union, and was named the first UE NEWS managing editor;Bill Cahn, another veteran reporter who produced photo-histories of labor; Charlie Kerns, a veteran broadcaster and UE publicity director; cartoonist Fred Wright; andBetty Goldstein, later famous as feminist Betty Friedan.

PHOTOGRAPHER, HUMORIST

In addition to his work as a reporter, Lerner also became the UE NEWS’s principal photographer. During the ferocious attacks on the union in the 1950s, he assumed greater and greater editorial responsibilities.

Lerner and cartoonist Wright collaborated on a labor history cartoon strip than ran in the paper from 1956 to 1961. This was one of many joint projects. The two expanded on their labor history series in the 1970s. In 1979 produced the pamphlet Too Many Hours! Labor’s struggle to shorten the work day as a contribution to a newly organized labor coalition for shorter working hours.

Early in his UE NEWS career Lerner took on responsibility for an unsigned column of brief items on current events which turned into the long-running humor feature "It happened this way..." A collection of the best of the "Humor in the NEWS" was published in 1991.

Lerner became the managing editor of the UE NEWS in 1967 upon the retirement of Tom Wright.

Lerner authored How Foreign is ´Foreign´ Competition and other UE pamphlets.

Under Lerner’s direction, the UE NEWS achieved a close identification with the men and women who worked in factories, foundries and offices represented by the union.

"To read the UE NEWS," wrote the author of 1983 article on the nation’s labor press for the Columbia Journalism Review, "... is to quickly sense an extraordinarily tough union that draws its strength from a them-against-us sensibility... the union’s rank-and-file attitude percolates through the paper."

LEGACY

Lerner also mentored a new generation of labor journalists. "Much of what I learned about democratic trade unionism and working-class principles came from conversations with Jim Lerner as we put together the UE NEWS," recalls Michael Funke, former assistant editor the United Auto Workers’ magazine Solidarity. "Jim had a wry sense of humor and a powerful disdain for the ruling class. He taught me something about labor history and class struggle almost every day we worked together. Jim was an unassuming class warrior who lived an important life."

Comments Peter Gilmore, the current UE NEWS managing editor: "The seven years I worked with Jim represent an incomparable apprenticeship in labor journalism. More importantly, it was an education in what it means to work for the membership of a rank-and-file union. My debt to Jim Lerner is incalculable."

Lerner retired on June 15, 1984. At a May 31, 1984 reception, UE Genl. Sec.-Treas.Boris Block observed that Lerner’s previous history of activism formed the "impressive credentials" the young journalist and organizer had brought with him to the union. Dir. of Org. Hugh Harley, who joined with Genl. Pres. James Kane in hailing Lerner, said he regarded the editor as one of the union’s top organizers because of his ability to generate action.

Subsequent to his retirement, Lerner worked on his memoirs and oversaw the publication of the It Happened This Way... collection.

Jim Lerner is survived by his wife Gert, son Dick, daughter Betty and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

EXCERPTS FROM IT HAPPENED THIS WAY...:

Washington authorities have sent Tossy Saki, an elderly Japanese man, to a nut house for wanting to hand out watches, binoculars and other gifts which belonged to him, to government officials.

Another fellow promised to give away oil lands, forests and grazing lands which didn't belong to him and he was put in the White House. (1952)

* * *

Former President Herbert Hoover who presided over the "Great Depression's" onslaught says that the words "readjustment" and "recession" were "invented some years ago to make the unemployed feel better" than the word "depression."

True but still not as much as the words "job" and "paycheck."

(1954)

* * *

Former Vice President Richard Nixon is joining the law firm of Mudge, Stern, Baldwin and Todd. Mudge is dead. Stern is dead. Baldwin is dead.

Alas, poor Todd. (1963)

* * *

An AFL-CIO report advising the Brazilian people on how to handle their economic and social problems advises, "You can't have the poor suffer more than the rich and the rich suffer more than the poor."

If this works in Brazil, it should be tried here because it's a pretty neat trick. (1967)

* * *

Sen. Proxmire reveals that nearly $700 million appropriated by Congress under the title of "Food for Peace" has been spent on providing military equipment to other countries.

A more appropriate title for the program would be "Cannon Fodder." (1971)

* * *

The new United States senator from Texas, Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr. was described in the press as "6 feet, 2 inches tall, handsome, conservative, a multimillionaire, 49 and a Democrat. He was a combat pilot in the war."

George Bush, the Republican he defeated, was described as "6 feet, 2 inches tall, handsome, conservative, a multimillionaire, 46 years old and a Republican, who was a combat pilot in World War II."

Apparently, only their hairdresser could tell them apart. (1971)

* * *

The President´;s new chief economic adviser, Alan Greenspan, claims that inflation is essentially a political, not an economic problem.

Not at our supermarket. (1973)

* * *

Trying to explain away its huge profits, a Gulf Oil advertisement insists that "profits is not a four letter word." Obviously, but "Gulf" is. (1979)

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