Frank Rosen: Union Organizer, Political Activist, Civil Libertarian

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Frank Rosen, longtime labor leader, political activist, and member of the Defending Dissent Foundation board, died November 28, 2016 in Chicago where he spent most of his life. He was 91.  Rosen took part in many of the seminal moments in Chicago history, from studying nuclear physics under Enrico Fermi, to fighting to defend civil liberties in the McCarthy era, to the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, to electing Harold Washington as mayor, to organizing against the unregulated power of utility companies, all while helping thousands of members of his union struggle on a daily basis for decent wages and benefits and dignity on the job.

Following 15 years as a rank-and-file member of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) and ten years on the union’s national staff, Rosen served as the elected president of UE District 11 from 1976 until his retirement in 1990.  Throughout that time Rosen worked closely on many social justice issues with other leaders of the left wing of Chicago’s labor movement, led by the likes of Charlie Hayes of the Packinghouse Workers, who later became a U.S. Congressman.

Rosen was born in Pittsburgh in 1925 and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and Miami Beach, Florida.  His political views were shaped very early by the experience of seeing his father’s clothing shop in Cleveland go under during the Depression. He joined the Navy in 1943 straight out of high school, attended officer training school at Georgia Tech, and served in the Pacific as World War II came to a close.  His ship was one of the first to visit Nagasaki, Japan after the atomic bomb had been dropped on that city. The utter devastation he witnessed there contributed to his decision not to become a nuclear physicist after getting a bachelors degree at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University and doing graduate work in physics at the University of Chicago, both of which he attended on the GI Bill. He would frequently say that he looked around at the height of the Cold War and decided that the world needed fewer nuclear physicists and more people working for a world where the atomic bomb would never be used again.

In 1949 Rosen met and married his wife of 47 years, Lois Anne (Schafer).  Two years later they left the university and moved to the Southwest Side where they formed a working partnership, raising three children while immersing themselves in union and community organizing.

In 1951 Rosen took a job as a machine operator at Goodman Manufacturing, a company that built heavy mining equipment. He worked his way up to maintenance electrician during his 15 years in the plant and held a variety of positions in UE Local 1114.  He served on the negotiating committee for 14 consecutive years and helped lead several strikes.  In 1966 Rosen joined the staff of the UE and spent the next ten years assisting UE locals in Chicago and Minneapolis, as well as at the large Allen-Bradley plant in Milwaukee where he helped run the 1970 strike of thousands of workers to secure a decent pension plan.

It was during the political tumult of the post-WWII time and the early resistance to the intolerance of the McCarthy era that he developed a friendship with Harold Washington.  Many years later, the Rosen family played an active role in Washington’s successful 1983 campaign to become Chicago’s first Black mayor, organizing both labor and community support.

Rosen was an outspoken early opponent of the Vietnam War and went on to organize significant labor union opposition to the war.  As a speaker at a small anti-war demonstration in the mid-1960s, he accurately predicted that their numbers would grow and they would stop the war.  He was an active member and leader in a number of peace organizations throughout his life.

In the face of racial turmoil in Chicago in the 1960s and 1970s, Rosen worked with his wife and others to form the Southwest Community Congress (SCC) to build relationships across racial and neighborhood divides. It was their work with SCC that led to opportunities for Harold Washington to engage with residents of the Southwest Side, an area of the city that was generally hostile to his mayoral candidacy.

In the 1970s, Rosen was a founder of the Labor Coalition on Public Utilities (LCPU), created to take on the price-gouging and under-investment in infrastructure by the major utility companies. He met and worked closely with Ralph Nader, the nationally known consumer advocate.  LCPU laid the groundwork for the creation of the Citizens Utility Board (CUB) which continues to fight for the interests of residential utility consumers to this day.  Rosen was elected to represent his congressional district as one of the first directors of CUB.

Rosen also marshaled support in Chicago for the grape boycotts led by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in the 1960s and helped create a national organization, the All Unions Committee for a Shorter Work Week, in the 1970s.

Rosen continued his work with a number of organizations in retirement even after losing his wife and partner Lois Anne to cancer at too young an age in 1996.  He helped lead the Illinois chapter of Labor Party Advocates in the 1990s, an effort to form a third party to the left of the Democrats, and he was an active supporter of Ralph Nader’s independent campaign for President in 2000.

In his mid-70s, when describing himself in a letter to a friend, Rosen said “As long as I am physically and mentally able to do so, I intend to keep on keeping on in struggles for peace, justice and equality in the USA.”  That’s exactly what he did, well into his late 80s until his health made it impossible to continue.  In 2002 he was fortunate to find and marry another partner, Bernice Selden, who shared many of his same interests and goals.

Perhaps his most important contribution of all, throughout his long life Rosen was an insightful and generous mentor to successive generations of young activists in the labor movement and other social justice organizations.  Many a new organizer would come to him for advice and support.

Rosen is survived by his wife as well as his children Rachel DeGolia, Rebecca Balanoff, and Carl Rosen, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

A memorial will be held on February 4, 2017 at 2:00 pm at The Selfhelp Home, 908 W Argyle St., Chicago IL 60640.  In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to The Selfhelp Home , Circle Pines Center or U.S. Labor Against the War .