JCAC and Family and Friends of Frank Schonfeld
Invite you to attend a Vladeck Hall Sunday afternoon of remembrance and respect for the life and work of Frank Schonfeld
We Remember Frank
Sunday February 26, 2012
2:00pm to 4:30pm
74 Van Cortlandt Park South
Among the Speakers will be
David Schonfeld, Sari Rosokoff, Ezra Glaser
Judith Schneider (Association for Union Democracy)
Bea Simpson, Ed Yaker, Paul Birnbaum, Jay and Ronda Hauben
Members of the audience will be encouraged to speak about Frank as well.
Light refreshments will be served
Born in Nagykároly, Hungary in 1916, Frank lived 95 active years. Frank and his wife Jean moved into the Amalgamated in 1945, where they lived continuously for 64 years until 2009. Frank successfully led a fight against corruption in the Painters Union. He was committed to the idea of cooperative housing. Frank served on the Amalgamated Board and, when not on the Board, was a leader of the loyal opposition. Everyone recognized that Frank acted out of philosophical conviction and never for personal gain. Frank was a life long fighter against corruption. He will always be remembered as a wonderful character, inspiring others to be active and courageous in the fight for a better world. He will be missed.
By Herman Benson
(February 8, 2012)
Among the many things Frank and I shared was a birthday. We were both born on a July 9th. Except that I was one year older than he. That's my way of saying that, at 96 years of age and biologically degraded, I find it hard to get around. I'm sorry I can’t be with you, but I must at least write something about my good old friend, Frank Schonfeld.
I first met Frank in 1961. He was a housepainter and member of the big Painters District Council 9 in New York. He had decided to run for the top job of DC 9 secretary treasurer as part of a campaign to free the union from control by the Luchese crime family. I was the publisher of a little newsletter, Union Democracy in Action, which aimed to tell the story of union reformers like him. To tell you the truth, my first reaction was: This guy may be a 100% wacko, dizzy with illusions of grandeur. All he seemed to have was himself and half a dozen active supporters. And in a union of maybe 12,000 members, he expects to overcome a bunch of crooks backed by organized crime!
But he turned out to be genuine. At least as important, he turned out to be right. That encounter in 1961 marked the beginning of 40 years of close collaboration and friendship between Frank and me.
Frank was a rare person. You may know that his father and grandfather were both prominent rabbis. He graduated from a Yeshiva and seemed destined to continue the tradition. But like me he grew up during the great depression when we, like thousands of other young people, became Marxist social radicals. That's how he decided to become a painter--to join the working class in the great cause of creating a new, better, more humane, freer society.
That didn't quite work out. But he continued to campaign for a more democratic union. When he first ran for top office in 1961, he did surprisingly well. In this union, where no one was really watching the count and where ballot fraud was routine, he was credited with one-third of the votes. In some painter locals where he was able to campaign vigorously, he actually won a majority. He persevered, built a caucus of maybe a dozen activists, ran again in 1964, and did a little better.
Early in 1966, came a tense and dangerous moment. Dow Wilson, a painters’ reform leader in California with whom Frank had been coordinating efforts was murdered and a month later Lloyd Green, a Wilson colleague was shot to death. I remember telephoning Frank on the day before he was to fly to California for their memorial. In the background, his daughter Sari, fearful of his safety was crying and begging him not to go. But Frank would not be dissuaded.
In 1967, a Federal judge ordered a new election, to be supervised by a court-appointee. With an honest count at last, Frank defeated Martin Rarback who had held the top job for twenty years. (Rarback later went to jail on corruption charges.).An old adage warns: be careful of what you hope for; you may achieve it. For Frank it was a spectacular victory, and yet, it opened up what was probably the most physically and emotionally stressful six years of his life, with dawn-to-dark hours of work.
He had won the top district position with all its full responsibility. But he was denied the actuality of power to fulfill that responsibility. He had been elected by direct vote of the membership. But most of the old-line business agents still controlled the locals and dominated the council of delegates. And they remained in collusions with the bosses and they had the support of the international union officials to undermine his authority. Those same business agents supported raids by a corrupted Teamster local against Painters DC 9. He faced a raid from the Carpenters union. He faced hostility from the New York City Housing Authority. I knew about all that because I worked with Frank in all those nerve-wracking years.
By sheer Schonfeld determination and working those interminable hours, he held on for six years. But he did more than just hold on. He led a general strike of New York painters that effectively raised wages 93% and increased pensions by 44%. He took the pension plan out of the hands of a suspect administration and put it under professional control. He warded off two raids by the Teamsters and a long raid attempt by the Carpenters. He democratized the election system. When he ran for reelection in 1970, he faced a concerted drive by the business agents, the international, the Teamsters, the agents of the Luchese family to defeat him. By a near miracle he beat them off to win reelection.
But after another three years--by 1973--the balance of power had shifted. During Frank's six years in office, the business agents, with the aid of cooperating bosses, succeeded in bringing in a whole new army of employees beholden to them for jobs. Open Schonfeld supporters often found it difficult to get work. In 1973, Jimmy Bishop, chosen as candidate by organized crime, edged out Frank for secretary treasurer. How do we know Bishop was the mob’s candidate? A few years later he was forced to resign and then murdered, a victim of a falling out among racketeers.
Frank went back to work as a housepainter. He could earn good money and retire on a generous pension because he now could enjoy everything he himself had helped win for painters. Not only painters, but the whole labor movement has benefited from Frank's career as a courageous union reformer. While still an insurgent in 1962, Frank supported the cause of Solomon Salzhandler an old-time painter and treasurer of DC 9 Local 442 who had been fined and suspended for accusing his business agent, who had stolen money, of stealing money. Frank helped recruit a young attorney, Burton Hall, to represent Salzhandler in Federal Court. They won the famous case of Salzhandler v. Caputo, the landmark case which established a firm basis in federal law for the rights of free speech in unions.
I must mention one part of Frank's life because he would talk about it over and over, in public meetings and in private. His life was self-fulfilling, but it was all-consuming and always on the margin. He could survive and do great things only because he had the unwavering moral and practical support from his wonderful wife, Jean. If he could be here today, he would make it an important part of what he had to say.
After Frank was finally relieved of the burdens of union leadership, his life took a new and quite different turn. Our long collaboration in the cause of union democracy, developed into a warm and continuing friendship. I introduced him to the great outdoors of Mother Nature. Together we co-owned some 40 acres of abandoned farmland and a pond in Bradford New York, 300 miles from New York City, where we bushwhacked through the woods and worked to rescue a crumbling hundred-year-old farmhouse. Frank was fascinated by the grass, the flowers, the trees, the bushes, the wetlands. Like one great poet, he learned "to see a World in a grain of sand and a Heaven in a wild flower."
Others can speak of what he did and what he accomplished in later years. I must end with this: Goodbye, my old friend Frank. We had great times together.
Herman Benson, February 8, 2012.