At this time four years ago (August 2008) one of my best friends, Rich Klimmer, a college organizer for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), moved into a hotel in Philadelphia to help coordinate the labor campaign for Obama in the state of Pennsylvania.
Richie, a tough, working class kid from Chicago who had played basketball at Marquette, approached this campaign as if it might be the last of his life because, in fact, it was. The survivor of more than 60 surgeries, including a leg amputation, who had to go to dialysis four days a week for acute kidney failure, Richie believed that labor’s future in the US depended in electing Barack Obama and decided to use his considerable skills to assure this happened in a key swing state.
Richie called the Pennsylyania campaign “class struggle against racism” because it involved convincing white workers throughout the state, many of whom had lived in neighborhoods where blacks were not welcome, to vote for a black candidate.
Almost every day, I heard a new story from Richie about heroic efforts of union members going door to door and alternately facing down angry racists and finding people ready to vote for Obama.
The campaign, in the eyes of Richie, and almost everyone he worked with, was a crusade to persuade working people to place their class interests above their racial prejudices.
Often bedridden, Richie viewed this campaign as almost a mirror of his own experience growing up in a white ethnic neighborhood in Chicago and realizing that his future as a ballplayer involved sharing that experience with people who he had been taught to hate and fear.
Richie believed with all his heart that white working class racism was not something immutable and unchangeable because it is something he had overcome himself. And his passion energized those around him.
Richie worked out of that hotel room for three straight months and it was not until the last few days that he was confident of the outcome. Unfortunately, on election night, Richie was in the hospital, but we still shared the joy of an Obama victory via cell phone.
One year later, Richie was dead, but not before we had put his recollections of the campaign on tape. I still have the eight hours of interviews about the campaign that we recorded. Someday I will figure out what to do with them.
But as we move into the final three months of this Presidential campaign, I wonder what Richie would think about the Obama Administration, and labor’s stake in the 2012 election. Whether he would feel the same passion, the same energy, the same sense that the conscience of the American working class, as well as its future, was at stake in this election as the last one.
R.I. P. Rich Klimmer. Pride of the American Working Class, Warrior for Justice.
With A Brooklyn Accent
Posted: Wednesday, 22 August 2012