An Organizer's Life

Paul Booth: An Organizer’s Life

January 19, 2018

You may also like

There’s a scene in last year’s documentary by Lilly Rivlin, Heather Booth: Changing the World, in which Heather and Paul Booth discuss how they met at an anti-war sit-in at the University of Chicago’s administration building in 1966.

“The sit-in lasted several days and nights. We got to know each other very well,” Paul recalled. “By the end of the week I was ready to propose marriage and I did.” Married the following year, they spent a lifetime together as key organizers and activists in every social justice movement of the past half-century.

On Wednesday, Heather was escorted, in handcuffs, out of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., at a protest of Dreamers and Jewish activists in support of DACA and immigrant rights. At the time, she didn't know it was Paul's last day. Paul had died unexpectedly at 7:30 p.m. of complications of leukemia.

In their last conversation, Paul told Heather that he was proud of her involvement in the civil disobedience. It bespeaks their lifetime together as activists.

Paul spent 43 years working for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) before retiring last year. Throughout his lifetime as an organizer and activist, he was a key bridge-builder between the labor movement and other progressive crusades for immigrant rights, civil rights, women’s rights, and peace. 

Born in 1943, Paul was raised in Washington, D.C., by Socialist Party members. His mother was a psychiatric social worker. His father was an economist with the Department of Labor and one of the architects of Social Security in the Roosevelt administration.

In August 1961, as a sophomore at Swarthmore College, Paul attended a National Student Association conference in Madison, Wisconsin, where he witnessed a heated argument between Tom Hayden, University of Michigan activist and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) founder, and William Buckley, editor of the right-wing magazine National Review. According to James Miller’s SDS history, Democracy Is In The Streets, at one point Buckley harangued Hayden, “The trouble with you liberals is that you have no eschatology.” 

As Booth told Miller: “I don’t remember what else was said. I went running around trying to figure out what an eschatology was.” 

Impressed with Hayden’s vision of building a student movement to challenge the nation’s political and economic status quo, Paul formed an SDS group at Swarthmore, building it into one of the largest in the country. The chapter’s initial work involved participating in civil rights protests in nearby Philadelphia and Chester. At the SDS meeting at Port Huron, Michigan, in 1962, Paul was instrumental in drafting the Port Huron Statement, the group’s manifesto of youthful idealism and pragmatic activism. At that gathering, SDS elected Hayden as its president and the 19-year-old Booth as its vice president.

“My starting point was a commitment to mass organizing, that’s why I admired [Eugene] Debs,” he told SDS historian Miller, referring to the union organizer and Socialist Party candidate in the early 1900s. “He got votes, organized strikes and went to jail for protesting the First World War. He was both an effective organizer and a principled leader.” (The Booths named their eldest son Eugene. Their other son was named for Daniel de Leon, another Socialist labor activist in early 20th century).

In the summer of 1963, Paul worked with Arthur Waskow at the Peace Research Institute in Washington, D.C., researching the potential for shifting federal spending from military to civilian projects and helping defense workers shift into jobs outside the military-industrial complex.

The next year, as many other SDS activists ventured into local community organizing in the ghettos of American cities, Paul led SDS’s Peace Research and Education Project, which sought to organize workers in defense plants facing factory closings and layoffs. Its goal was to build a coalition between blue-collar workers and the inner-city poor to reduce military spending and increase funds for social programs, housing, and education.  

In 1964, following President Johnson’s escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Paul and fellow SDS leader Todd Gitlin crisscrossed the country trying to interest student activists in opposing the war, but discovered little interest. But they persisted and eventually persuaded their SDS colleagues to sponsor the first major march on Washington against the war. The march, on April 17, 1965, was the largest peace protest up to that point in American history, drawing about 25,000 participants.

Supporters of the event included the Women’s Strike for Peace and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, reflecting Paul’s intent to connect the anti-war and civil rights movements. The day-long event began with picketing outside the White House, followed by music from folk singers Joan Baez and Phil Ochs and antiwar speeches at the Washington Monument.

(Photo courtesy of Jobs With Justice)

Paul Booth with family

While a few anti-war activists decided to burn their draft cards, Paul—hoping to enlist mainstream support for the peace movement—called a press conference in Washington to announce that the rally’s goal was to “build not burn.”

“We’re really not just a peace group,” Paul told the New York Times reporter covering the rally. “We are working on domestic problems—civil rights, poverty, and university reform. We feel passionately and angrily about things in America, and we feel that a war in Asia will destroy what we’re trying to do here.”  

Although Vietnam preoccupied Paul and SDS, he also sought to expand the movement’s horizons. In March 1965, with SDS support and drawing on union and civil rights tactics, he organized a sit-in at the Chase Manhattan Bank in New York City to draw attention to the bank's ties to the pro-apartheid regime in South Africa, prefiguring the international divestment movement that helped bring down the regime in the 1980s.

Paul moved to Chicago in 1965 to serve as SDS’s national secretary—its top job. It was while working in the group’s national office that he joined the sit-in at the University of Chicago and met Heather—a fateful day for them and for American progressivism.

Paul’s commitment to building alliances with other groups and constituencies did not endear him to some of the more extremist elements in SDS. In 1966, they ousted Paul from his leadership role, casting him as a representative of the “old guard.” 

Paul was 23.

In 1966, the United Packinghouse Workers of America hired Paul as its research director. He was one of the first former campus radicals to join the labor movement, which in the 1960s and 1970s was starting to lose members and political influence, but which he viewed as a necessary component of any progressive future for America.

In 1970, while working for the union, he and other Chicago activists formed Citizens Action Program (CAP), a remarkable progressive organizing force that gathered under its wing labor unions, religious congregations, and community and environmental groups. With Paul as its co-chair, CAP built grassroots campaigns to challenge banks’ redlining practices; to expose the Cook County tax assessor’s practice of undervaluing corporate properties; to reduce toxic air pollution from local steel plants and other factories, and prod Commonwealth Edison, the region’s largest private utility, to negotiate an unprecedented antipollution agreement.

The Edison campaign “taught me the real discipline of organizing,” Paul told the Chicago Tribune in 1988. “The difference between a good and a crummy meeting, how to plan, how not to waste people’s time and what power struggles are really like.”

One of CAP’s boldest campaigns was designed to stop the construction of the Crosstown Expressway, a highway that would have razed thousands of homes and hundreds of small businesses in blue-collar neighborhoods, which was a favorite project of Chicago’s business and political establishment. CAP turned the expressway controversy into a pivotal issue in the 1972 gubernatorial election. Dan Walker, an independent Democrat, defeated Illinois’s incumbent Republican Governor Richard Ogilvie by 51 percent to 49 percent on a strong anti-Crosstown platform.

CAP not only served as a training ground for many activists—including current Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois—but has also been a model for other labor-community coalitions ever since. Combining issue-oriented community organizing and transformational movement building led Heather (with Paul’s help) to found the Midwest Academy in 1973, a training center that has influenced thousands of organizers for unions, student and women’s rights groups, and environmental, peace, civil rights, and community organizations.

In 1974, Paul went to work for AFSCME as the international union’s representative for Illinois. He helped organize AFSCME Council 31 in Illinois and, as its assistant director, led the campaigns that secured the first union contract for 40,000 state workers and 7,000 Chicago municipal employees. He also negotiated historic pay-equity provisions for city workers to address pay disparities between women and men.

With Heather, he played a key role in electing Harold Washington as Chicago’s first black mayor in 1983, defeating the city’s corrupt patronage machine and creating a broad multiracial coalition that enacted the most progressive municipal policies of any American city. 

Paul moved to Washington, D.C., in 1988 to work in AFSCME’s national office, serving for ten years as the union’s organizing director and then as Executive Assistant (essentially, chief of staff) for union presidents Gerald McEntee and Lee Saunders. In those capacities, he laid the foundation for AFSCME’s representation of nurses and corrections workers, helping grow the union into a 1.6 million–member organization. Paul retired in January of last year but continued his activism on a host of issues. 

As the chief strategist for one of the nation’s largest, most progressive, and most electorally oriented unions (almost all of AFSCME’s members were government employees), Paul often came up with innovative campaigns and initiatives that not only guided AFSCME but also much of the labor movement. In 1994, he devised the nation’s very first living-wage campaign, working with BUILD, a community organizing group in Baltimore. To challenge municipal politicians’ efforts to privatize key government services, the AFSCME-BUILD coalition called on the city to require private companies with municipal subsidies to pay its employers a living wage. Over the next decade, the idea spread to hundreds of cities around the country and became a model for the broader Fight for 15 campaign that has pressured local governments to adopt minimum-wage laws.  

After the midterm elections of 1994, which cost Democrats control of the House of Representatives for the first time in decades, the discontent that had been festering among progressive unions about the AFL-CIO’s leadership burst into the open. Headed by president Lane Kirkland, the federation still seemed to be fighting the Cold War—four years after the Soviet Union had ceased to exist—and still shunned working in alliance with other progressive groups and constituencies. AFSCME President McEntee was the first to go public with the demand that it was time for Kirkland and the ancient regime to go—an insurgency, which Paul helped mastermind, that led to the election of SEIU president John Sweeney as the AFL-CIO’s new leader, and brought about a transformation of labor’s political orientation.

In subsequent years, with McEntee chairing the AFL-CIO’s political committee, Paul played a major role in labor’s targeting of races, its campaign themes, and its nurturing of progressive candidates.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton appointed Paul to serve on the Democratic Party’s platform drafting committee, where he served as a bridge between the Clinton and Bernie Sanders forces. In his six-minute speech to the convention, Paul said, “I am proud to present the most ambitious platform the Democratic Party has ever offered,” describing the importance of challenging “systemic racism,” dealing with climate change, raising the federal minimum wage to $15, and expanding workers’ right to organize unions.

On his Fox News show, right-wing broadcaster Glenn Beck frequently used a blackboard to illustrate his conspiracy theories about the ties between radical activists and President Obama. “Who is Paul Booth?” Beck asked during one of his rants. Beck used a quote from Paul from his SDS days—“I want to build a New Left in this country”—then linked him to other union leaders, liberals, and radicals, including Saul Alinsky, Van Jones, Bill Ayres, Jim Wallis, and George Soros, who, Beck said, were seeking “a total transformation of the United States of America.”

Beck got many of the names and details wrong, but he was correct in viewing Paul Booth as a key player in linking people and movements into a broader progressive alliance to reshape society.

Since his student days, Paul was known as a brilliant organizer and shrewd strategist whose idealism was always balanced with a sense of practical politics.

(Photo courtesy of Jobs With Justice)

Paul Booth with an AFSCME advertisement

“Paul was one of the most principled people I ever knew,” said Dick Flacks, a University of California, Santa Barbara, sociologist who knew Paul from their early SDS days. “But he always was rational and pragmatic. He cared about the practical effects of organizing and action.”

Unlike some movement leaders, Flacks added, “Paul was never swaggering or self-promoting. He preferred being behind the scenes.”

One of his many behind-the-scenes endeavors in recent decades was to help instigate, win funding for, and guide a host of other progressive institutions—from the Economic Policy Institute and Jobs with Justice to the National Employment Law Project, the Restaurant Opportunity Center, and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. As the leaders of these and other groups have attested, Paul was on tap for them whenever they needed strategic or organizing counsel.

Paul was the quintessential inside-outside activist, recognizing the importance of protest and civil disobedience while acknowledging the necessity of forging alliances with politicians to give voice to and help implement progressive changes.

Among his friends, Paul was known for being witty, ironic and warm as well as intellectual. Together, he and Heather balanced their activism and their family life, raising two sons, and participating in a wide network of activist friends. While Paul worked for AFSCME for 43 years—and was able to use that position to help countless other groups—Heather has worked for a range of groups across the progressive universe, building organizations like the Citizen Energy Coalition, working with the NAACP, Planned Parenthood, MoveOn, USAction, People’s Action, the National Organization for Women, the National Council of La Raza, and the Center for Community Change; running the Midwest Academy; serving as director of Americans for Financial Reform and as a key adviser to Elizabeth Warren in getting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau through Congress; and mentoring young Dreamer activists pushing for immigrant rights. An account of their lives could serve as a history of the past half-century of American liberalism.

Paul was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 2004 but exhibited no symptoms until last month. During a December trip to Cuba with Heather and other friends, Paul experienced severe exhaustion, difficulty breathing, and some bloating. When they returned to their D.C. home in early January, Paul was admitted to Sibley Hospital for tests. 

Heather created a Caring Bridge website to inform their friends about Paul’s condition. In a message to friends a day after Paul entered the hospital, Heather wrote that Paul was “in good spirits—just tired,” expected to return home within a few days and to begin chemotherapy, and “should be fine continuing with his regular activities.”

“Paul particularly welcomes any news about more Republican retirements,” Heather wrote. “What you really can do for Paul (and yourselves and the country) is to organize and build the resistance!”
On Monday, from his hospital bed, Paul wrote a message to the hundreds of friends who had posted comments on the website. He reminded them of the Memphis sanitation workers' strike 50 years ago, a campaign in which AFSCME helped the African American workers win a union contract and better pay and working conditions.

Paul wrote:

I would like to reply to each of you, individually; our histories together have had unique moments whose recollection comes rushing to my mind as I see your names on these notes. Some of you have been friends from elementary or high school. But if I can’t write to each of you one by one, let me at least share a few reflections today, on Dr. King’s birthday. I’ve been lending a hand to AFSCME and the Church of God in Christ on their ambitious plans for the commemoration of the 50 years since the Memphis sanitation strike and Dr. King’s assassination. I encourage you to go to www.iam2018.org to learn about and connect with the effort. The year’s work kicks off tonight at the NAACP Image Awards, where the surviving strikers (those fit to travel!) will receive the Vanguard Award.

On February 1, we will remember the incident that triggered the strike, the Memphis afternoon when a downpour forced Echol Cole, 35, and Robert Walker, 29, to seek shelter in the back of their old trash truck. The compactor kicked in, crushing them to death. It was the last straw for the workers, who had an AFSCME charter as Local 1733, but no manner of recognition from the city. They struck for safety, and union recognition. As they marched, day after day, facing police brutality and racial hostility, it became a strike for basic human dignity, for dignity for all workers. They came up with the sign I AM A MAN, capturing forever in just four words the reasons we fight for justice. The whole point of I AM 2018 is to grab America’s attention, to drive home that the causes for which the workers and Dr. King marched and sacrificed are today’s causes. All our causes; the I AM sign now belongs to all our movements, be they about women, race, immigration, inequality or the simple right of public workers to unionize, which is on trial again at the Supreme Court. On February 1, Local 1733 asks that we join them in a Moment of Silence at 10 am, to reflect on the deaths of Brothers Cole and Walker, and to recommit to the struggle. In some cities, trash trucks will stop for that Moment; in others, sanitation workers and municipal officials will join for recognition and prayer.

Dr. King famously said ‘the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.’ But he knew, and I underline, that it’s up to us to do the bending. We shall do it together.

Advertisement
Advertisement