America Loses a True Working-Class Hero

Roger Bybee

Rudy Kuzel, former president of UAW Local 72.

A working-class hero is something to be“ — John Lennon

On October 1, when retired UAW Local 72 President Rudy Kuzel succumbed to cancer at age 73, Wisconsin lost the most extraordinary working-class hero I’ve ever known.

Before his retirement Rudy led Local 72 through many tumultuous struggles — first with American Motors and then, after 1987, with Chrysler — during his 38 years as an autoworker.

With his bristling crew-cut, his intimidating gaze, and his uniform of a black T-Shirt and blue jeans under his shiny UAW jacket, a reporter once described Rudy as looking like an old-fashioned union leader sent from central casting.

Rudy not only looked the part of a labor leader, he fully embodied it with a degree of commitment and skills as an inspiring unifier, chess-master strategist at the negotiating table, and uplifting orator. He was a steadfast, utterly resolute force for labor and a broader vision of social and economic democracy.

While too many of Rudy’s contemporaries saw the labor movement as narrowly working for just us,” Rudy always saw labor’s responsibility as justice for all.”

Reporting on Rudy while serving as editor of Racine Labor just north of the auto plant in Kenosha where he worked, I had the unique opportunity to see him in action again and again, always marveling at his ability to win the trust of his members and to spread a progressive message with imagination and flair. As a public speaker, Rudy was a non-stop fount of compelling quotes and powerful images.

Although his formal education ended with high school, Rudy, whose mother was a librarian, read more voraciously than a roomful of college professors. John Drew, who succeeded him after Rudy’s retirment in 1996, sat through countless negotiating sessions with Rudy and Chrysler and described him as always operating two steps ahead of everyone else in the room.”

While many other Local 72 members were involved as well, Rudy helped Local 72 to become the first union in the nation to win a Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday — long before it became a national event. In an area marked by a high level of class-consciousness but often also marred by racism, Rudy was a consistent exemplar and advocate of interracial solidarity within Local 72 and community.

When Rudy saw inustice, he spoke out, always in forceful and highly memorable terms. Rudy’s idea of international working-class solidarity extended to taking on right-of-center Democratic Rep. Les Aspin over aid to the murderous Nicaraguan contras.

This was not greeted with applause among many members of the UAW hierarchy, who took the position that Aspin was a Democrat and therefore a dear friend of the UAW (who also could potentially steer military contracts to Wisconsin). But Rudy saw Aspins’s support for the contras as a moral atrocity that demanded speaking out.

Rudy didn’t confine his criticism to Aspin, also blasting AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland as senile” and a stooge of Reagan” for his stance on Central America. Rudy’s outspoken stance marked a clear turning point in Aspin’s voting record on Central America. Once Rudy signed an open letter to Aspin demanding that he end his support for the Reagan-sponsored contras, then 68 other leading unionists in the area signed on as well. Soon after, Aspin lost his enthusiasm for giving U.S. aid to the contras.

Just a few months after that battle, Rudy and Local 72 members faced the biggest struggle of their lives. Chrysler had provided guarantees for keeping jobs in Kenosha in exchange for state and local subsidies, but on January 27,1988, Lee Iacocca announced that 5,500 auto-assembly jobs were, in effect, being relocated to a low-wage plant in Mexico. Where many union leaders would have started negotiating a plant shutdown agreement, Rudy gathered the Local 72 leadership and laid out a plan for battling the shutdown every step of the way.

Within days of the announcement, Local 72 brought in Jesse Jackson, who drew a crowd of 7,000 or more to an outdoor rally on a frigid February day where he decried the economic violence” of Chrysler’s decision. Public officials – including conservative Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson – joined with Local 72 to denounce Chrysler’s betrayal of its agreements with the state, city and union. Wherever Chrysler officials appeared anywhere in the US – like at the National Auto Show – so did Local 72 to remind Chrysler of its written and moral obligations.

Finally, a visibly exasperated Lee Iacocca showed up in mid-February at a news conference in a hotel ballroom near Milwaukee’s airport, with Local 72 protesters locked outside. Given the huge stakes for southeastern Wisconsin, every TV station broadcast the event live.

Surrounded by a coterie of bodyguards and Chrysler exectuives, Iacocca, with a great sense of self-congratulation for his munificence, unveiled a $20 million trust fund for victims of the Kenosha plant closing. Iacocca and his entourage then floated away.

Immediately, UAW Local 72 members poured into the ballroom with the reporters still present. Rudy Kuzel then strode to the podium. I had seen Rudy handle many tough situations with great poise and precision, but here he had only about 10 minutes to digest Iacocca’s plan and formulate a response. I actually felt anxious for Rudy in dealing with this complex challenge, which turned out to be a bit like worrying about Michael Jordan’s ability to handle a layup. I wrote this for Racine Labor:

Once more showing his remarkable gift for pitch-perfect metaphors delivered at critical moments, Rudy compared Iacocca’s plan to a scene in a Western movie: Jesse James and his brother Frank hold up a bank and cleaned all of the town’s money. Pretty soon a posse starts chasing them, frantic about getting back their money. But Jesse got a bright idea and reached back into his saddlebags and took out a few coins and tossed them over his shoulder as he kept galloping away. Immediately, the posse comes to a screeching halt and they all start fighting among themselves over the few coins.That’s what Lee Iacocca’s plan is all about. They want us fighting among ourselves while they make their getaway from Kenosha.”

Eventually, the fierce eight-month struggle to save the 5,500 jobs was undercut by the withdrawal of support bu Gov. Thompson and Rep. Aspin. But Rudy’s determination and leadership forced Chrysler to shell out $250 million in benefits to the workers and Kenosha, making it the most expensive plant closing up to that point.

At the same time, Rudy and Local 72 managed to secure about 1,200 jobs making engines. (The engine jobs are now disappearing because Chrysler/​Fiat are using auto bailout funds to ship them off to a new plant in Saltillo, Mexico, where wages and benefits will probably be less than a tenth of what they are in the U.S.)

Rudy maintained a massive and loyal following because of the tenacity with which he had continually fought for worker rights and a more egalitarian society. But despite the wide popularity and respect he earned, I suspect that Rudy always viewed himself as an outsider, and thus he never lost his sympathy for the most powerless and excluded members of society.

He had a very hard upbringing, temporarily living in an orphanage apart from his mother and sister as a youth. In his late teens and early 20’s, many people predicted a short life-span for the hard-drinking, quick-tempered Rowdy Rudy.”

But he joined AA, permanently stopped drinking in 1960, and married his high school sweetheart. His involvement in Local 72 — where he went on to establish an innovative drug and alochol program that he headed up for many years — further stabilized his life.

However, Rudy never lost that outsider” sense of being obligated to stand up for those who were despised, shut out, and deprived of a voice. And with someone as tough and as smart as Rudy on your side, you always knew you were morally doing the right thing – and you were willing to take on anyone.

With Rudy, anything seemed possible — even a society where the economy works for working people and democracy is genuine. Here’s a compilation of quotes originally published in Racine Labor, drawn from 1985 to 1996 (Rudy was not only president of his local, he was shop chairman):

Quotations from Chairman Rudy

Rudy Kuzel’s many memorable public statements were both rich in imagery and deeply biting:

After Chrysler broke its pledges to maintain auto production in Kenosha: Chrysler’s credibility is like a Wisconsin winter – way below zero.”

When Chrysler gave its execs bonuses equal to 100% of their salaries:
Chrysler made their money the old-fashioned way – they took it from the workers.”

Introducing pro-Sandinista Nicaraguan unionistsin 1988: “[AFL-CIO President] Lane Kirkland has been a stooge for Reagan’s policy in Central and South America…The president of the US and the president of the AFL-CIO [Lane Kirkland]are both so afraid of our guests that they didn’t want them in the country. In both cases, the cause of that fear is senility.”

After a pair of Racine corporations moved jobs to China, just months after the massacre at Tiananmen Square, Kuzel vividly recalled the image of a student standing up to a row of tanks: We are with the students and the cause of freedom, and Western Printing and SC Johnson are the tanks.”

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education.Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus.More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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