On his 98th birthday, professional rabble-rouser and Brooklyn Heights resident Harry Kelber announced he will run for president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. No, not the local chapter of the nation’s largest labor group — the activist born during the Wilson administration wants to be in charge of the entire 11-million worker organization, better known as the AFL-CIO. The Brooklyn Paper’s Danielle Furfaro visited Kelber and talked about his campaign, his life, his views on labor, and the era when a pony ride cost about the same as a haircut.
Danielle Furfaro: How long have you been involved in the labor movement?
Harry Kelber: For 75 years. I’m 98-years-old. As a young man, I was thrust into it. I went to Cornell, but then I got a call that my father was dying. I was thrust into the working world as a breadwinner and I learned all about safeguarding workers’ rights. Then, they realized that I could write, and when the trade unions got hit hard, they gave me two newspapers: a construction trade paper, and the AFL-CIO paper. They didn’t give me a dime — I had to sell advertising to make an income. I did that from 1938 until 1942 and then I was drafted from 1942 until 1945. When I came home, both papers were gone.
DF: What did you do when you came back from the war?
HK: At the age of 46, I decided that I wanted to go to college. So I wrote to Brooklyn College. I got my baccalaureate from Brooklyn College and my master’s and Ph.D from NYU. I graduated in 1965 and a half.
DF: What’s the best job you’ve ever had?
HK: When I became editor of the Labor Educator. I’ve been there from 1994 when we were on paper, to the present when we’re on the internet. I should tell you that I write three columns a week.
DF: What are you up to now?
HK: On my 98th birthday, I announced that I intend to run for president of the AFL-CIO. This isn’t a frivolous statement. Across the country, people are unhappy. They are being asked to make concessions and being told they will be laid off if they don’t. And the union leaders are doing nothing about it.
DF: Do you have a lot of supporters?
HK: I have at least a couple of thousand people who follow me loyally. The anger and frustration is all out there. The key is to try to congeal it to make changes. In recent years, there has been no action whatsoever. If you get a hundred different locals agitating for what they believe in. They will coalesce and have a labor movement. That’s what we did in the ’50s. There was no magic.
DF: Do you have a campaign manager?
HK: I have a couple of people who are competing for it. At the moment, I’m the campaign manager.
DF: Are you using Facebook and Twitter to court voters?
HK: Very little. I have enough things to worry about and capitalize on. I do have a Facebook page. But I haven’t done anything on Twitter and I don’t intend to.
DF: What year were you born?
DF: You were born the same year as my grandmother.
HK: That was a wonderful decade. There was a Depression, but we got social security and food stamps and all sorts of programs. Since then, there’s been nothing.
DF: Do you think people will be wary of voting for someone who’s 98?
HK: 98 is not a young age, but I have a lot of pep in me. People are curious. If a 98-year-old guy can do this, why can’t a 50-year-old? Because they don’t have the guts.
DF: How old do you feel?
HK: I feel 50. I have the intelligence and memory of a 50-year-old and I could debate them all to hell. My memory’s great. I remember a pony ride I got out of a guy when I was three in exchange for letting him cut my hair. I’ve been all over the world and I remember all the fun and the aggravation.
DF: Are you a rebel?
HK: You can call me a rebel. I’ll take any name. As long as I can get things done.