Saturday, October 3, 2009

Rudy Kuzel 1935 to 2009

Wisconsin lost one of its finest on Thursday when Rudy Kuzel, former president of UAW local 72 and leader of Kenosha's auto workers, lost his battle with cancer.

Rudy was tough and compassionate, fiercely dedicated to the state's working men and women and to the fight for social and economic justice.

Everyone of us who had the opportunity to work with him and to learn from him feels a terrible sense of loss.

Rudy demanded that management respect working people. He was a UNION MAN who made all of us aspire to follow the trail he blazed. He taught an entire generation of young labor leaders how to fight, think and lead.

Rudy hated spineless politicians who talk about working people and our issues to get our votes, but forget us once in office.

Rudy is gone, but his belief that a better world is possible lives.

Thank you Rudy Kuzel.

One of the men Rudy worked with and mentored was John Drew. His reflections on Rudy are posted below.

Rudy Kuzel 1935-2009

By John Drew

Rudy Kuzel. Throughout his life as a husband, father, grandfather, brother, uncle, brother in law, friend, mentor and UAW leader he bettered the lives of those close to him and thousands more. Time and again, he demonstrated those rare and priceless qualities of wisdom, strength and leadership in his daily life and in the cause of justice.

Former UAW President Walter Reuther once said, ‘You can’t opt out of life. You’ve got to make up your mind whether you’re willing to accept things as they are or whether you’re willing to try to change them.” Today, we mark the passing of a man who dedicated his life to trying to change things for the better for working people.

Once when a newspaper reporter asked Rudy what he thought about Chrysler executives receiving a bonus equal to 100% of their pay he said “They earned it the old fashioned way, the workers made it for them.”

Lee Iacocca responded to the pounding that Rudy had given him in the fight over the Assembly plant closing, by announcing that Chrysler would set up a trust fund to help the children of laid off workers. Rudy immediately held a press conference on the same stage Iacocca had used. With the cameras rolling Rudy compared Iacocca to Jessie James dropping enough money out of his saddlebags to slow the posse down as he rode out of town after robbing the bank.

But in typical Rudy fashion, he went on to serve on the Board of that Trust Fund to make sure that the workers were treated fairly. That was the Rudy Kuzel I knew, someone who could capture the essence of injustice in one sentence but then also figure out a way to make things better. He not only could talk about injustice, he could also figure out how to change things.

At critical times Rudy was there with wise counsel for those of us who were his friends just as he was there for the membership. And let me tell, you were definitely better off being his friend than his enemy.

Like the time he told me, Tod Ohnstad, and Jon Melrod that we should get involved in the union not just criticize it in our newsletter.

There was also the time we were leading a wildcat strike in 1978. I don’t know how he did it but the phone in the phone booth in our unofficial strike HQ at Freddie’s Bar rang. It was Rudy advising us that there was a tentative agreement and we better get the people back to work before the situation got out of hand.

So too, Rudy gave the membership of Local 72 wise counsel and leadership when it was needed. In the 1960’s he was part of a revolution that put younger leaders in office and fought for dignity for the average worker and for equal enforcement of the contract.

In the 1970’s he returned to leadership in the union as part of a movement to move Local 72 forward.

In 1980, Rudy designed and negotiated a no-nonsense alcohol and drug policy that recognized that addiction was a disease and that people should be given a chance for treatment instead of discharge. Rudy went on to serve as the first A&D rep and laid the foundation for a program that improved hundreds of lives.

Also, around that time, Rudy was instrumental in negotiating a paid holiday to honor Martin Luther King and in starting an annual program to honor Dr. King and show Local 72’s commitment to civil and human rights. I am sure he will be on many minds in January when that program celebrates its 30th anniversary.

In 1984 he took on his greatest challenge when he decided to run for President during a time of great transition at AMC/Renault. Somehow he guided a militant membership and leadership through difficult negotiations that kept the plant open.

In 1988, Rudy led Local 72 in the legendary fight against the plant closing that resulted in the engine plant staying open and at that time the most expensive plant closing settlement in history.

After that Rudy recognized that the membership needed to get involved in improving quality and the Local needed to join the UAW Chrysler Council. His leadership and vision at that critical time paved the way for 20 years of work and the recall, retirement or transfer of the 5,000 workers who lost their jobs in the plant closing

Along the way Rudy never wavered from his own brand of populist progressive politics. He took on Les Aspin over U.S. involvement in Central America. He fiercely supported labor’s friends like Gwen Moore and went after our opponents in his own inimitable style. He led Local 72 to endorse Jesse Jackson for President in 1988.

Rudy was a fierce critic of the K-12 funding system and hated vouchers. He would have been pleased to know that the lawsuit that he filed with Attorney Rich Saks last year against a pro-voucher group for campaign irregularities was successful.

Rudy was not just a great leader, all along the way he also connected with people. Like his crew in the piston department where he worked led by Chief Steward Charlie Underwood. I still don’t know if it was Rudy or Charlie who took that lie detector test in Chicago when Charlie was fired for sabotage.

Then there were his allies on the Board in the late 60’s including Willie Foxie and Jim Robenson. That alliance was best captured in the famous front page picture of the white guy Rudy and the two black guys Willie and Robenson showing up for negotiations during the 1969 strike wearing berets of the type favored by the Black Panthers.

In the late 70’s Rudy connected with a solid group of unionists that included Gene Sylvester, Curt Wilson Jack Cole, Kenny Johnson, Dick O’Brien and others who put the local back on the right path.

In the 80’s and 90’s he became a friend and mentor to another generation of union activists that I was fortunate to be a part of along with Tod Ohnstad, Jon Melrod, the late Bob Rosinki, Phil Anastasi, Lula Smith and many others.

And in recent years he gave sound advice to the current President of Local 72, Glen Stark.

Those are the things he did. But oh the way he did them. To many, he was the stereotypical union leader. A reporter once wrote that with his gruff manner, his crew cut and union jacket he looked like he had been sent over by central casting to play the part of a union leader.

But beneath that rough exterior was something else entirely. He was the son of a librarian. Not only was he well read but he had an incredible memory and could pick a quote out of thin air or turn a phrase that would leave us all shaking our heads wondering how he came up with it. He was a vegetarian and took his last drink of alcohol in 1960.

In our union education classes we teach our reps that they are on equal footing with management in the eyes of the law. For AMC and Chrysler management, their problem was that they were never on an equal footing with Rudy. He was a brilliant strategist who was always two steps ahead of everyone else in the room. He was a visionary who could see around the corner when most people didn’t even know there was a turn coming up.

It may come as a surprise to you but Rudy was not always an easy person to work with.

When we were going through rough times, we could gauge Rudy’s mood by how many donuts he had in the morning. We knew we were in for a rough day when he reached for the fourth one.

As I said, Rudy was well read but obviously he had never heard the phrase “don’t kill the messenger.” Many times one of us would go to Rudy to inform him of something he didn’t want to hear and would catch the full force of his reaction which usually included the words No and Never and a few that were much stronger. You just had to let it wash over you and by later in the day Rudy had a plan on how to deal with the problem.

Rudy was admired and respected by union leaders like UAW Region 4 director Dennis Williams and State AFL-CIO President David Newby. Many elected officials will tell you that Rudy was not shy about sharing his views with them.

His good friend Congresswoman Gwen Moore was not able to be here but she wrote a wonderful letter to Connie and the family. UAW Vice President General Holiefield and Rudy’s great and dear friend former UAW Vice President Marc Stepp both asked me to share their sorrow at Rudy’s passing.

When Rudy retired, there were those of us who urged him to run for office, perhaps for the state assembly. But Rudy chose not to go that route. Instead he spent the last 13 years with his high school sweetheart Connie and the rest of his family. That was Rudy Kuzel too. He knew there was more to life than the headlines.

I will close with another quote from Walter Reuther. “There is no greater calling than to serve your fellow man. There is no greater contribution than to help the weak. There is no greater satisfaction than to have done it well.”

Rudy, my friend, you did it well indeed.

The Racine Journal Times obituary is linked here.