Saturday, April 9, 2011

A tribute to good friend Marty Fishgold and others in a passing era of New York City's labor movement

The recent death of Robert “Bob” Fitch, a longtime New York City labor activist and writer, was another marker in the passing of an era in the Big Apple. It brought back a personal and painful reminder of an earlier marker, the death of veteran labor editor Martin Fishgold last August, and also that of organizer Charles Ensley last June.

Bob Fitch

Bob Fitch, who died on March 4, was a rarefied soul, a true intellectual whose brilliant exegeses and analyses on the various labor conference panels I served with him—the most recent being at the “How Class Works” conference in Stony Brook, N.Y., last summer—often left me scratching my hand with wonder.

A man who looked at least 20 years younger than his 72 years, Fitch was the author of many papers, essays, and other works, including the 1996 book, The Assassination of New York, an account of the power of real estate moguls and Wall Street in his city. “So much of what’s attributed to anonymous global forces—like the deindustrialization of the city and its transformation into a global postindustrial metropolis—were consciously guided by bankers, developers and their hired hands,” wrote Doug Henwood in his recent tribute to Fitch in The Nation magazine. “They used all the instruments of state power—subsidies, zoning laws, eminent domain—to get their way.”

But they didn’t escape the scrutiny of Bob Fitch, who knew that Democrats were just as guilty as Republicans in caving to such powers. His was a voice that will be missed.

Martin Fishgold

(To the right you see my "impressionistic" photograph of Marty Fishgold from our trip in June 2009 to Pittsburgh, where we both spoke at a labor conference. Here Marty is his cool-looking self at a bridge near PNC Park, where we'd just watched my beloved Pirates beat the New York Mets. The photograph was copied from a shot I took with my old Olympus Superzoom 90, thus what I choose to call its "impressionistic" quality.)

After receiving a call from a mutual friend last August that Marty Fishgold had died, I quickly contacted Bob Fitch for confirmation. “Yes, Joe, I think it’s as bad as you’ve heard,” Bob said. Fishgold had indeed died at the age of 70.

As I’ve written in earlier postings for this blog, Marty Fishgold was a personal friend, an unlikely friend, in many ways, for this born-and-bred Southerner.

Marty was a Brooklyn-born New Yorker who grew up in one of the multi-level brick apartment buildings in what is now the city’s Russian section in Brighton Beach, near Coney Island. He gave my wife Suzanne and me a tour of his old stomping grounds during one of our trips up there. He was the descendant of Russian Jewish immigrants himself, socialists who opposed the Czar and brought their radical ideas with them to their new homeland.

A former president of the International Labor Communications Association and longtime editor of The Unionist, the publication of AFSCME Local 371 in New York, Marty carried on the torch of his father and grandfather, championing the cause of the working man and woman all his life. He could be a tough, even severe, critic, as much of the labor movement itself as of the corporate bosses and their political operatives.

Again and again he called for more democracy within the labor movement, and for a freewheeling labor press that’s not beholden to and subjugated by the movement’s own overpaid bosses.

I first met him at a conference in Chicago, and I immediately had a good feeling about the guy, his honesty, his integrity, his lack of pretense, and his convictions. We later met and joined forces at labor and media conferences in Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, and New York.

“Hey, Joe, I figured out what defines the working class,” he once told me over the phone. “The working class mows its own lawn.”

I agreed and laughed and thought about the countless yards I’ve mowed. Then I remembered my own big yard at my house outside town and the fact that my wife and I now hire somebody to mow it. Have I lost my credentials? I asked myself. Marty may not have intended it that time, but he always made you think.

I brought him down to Ole Miss once to speak to students here. He liked the South, poked fun at our food---“Whaddayu call that stuff, chili-cheese what?” he asked after my wife introduced him to that artery-choking Southern delicacy known as chili-cheese fries. He came down to visit several times, and whenever he did, he always brought with him a load of real New York bagels. They were delicious.

My best memories of Marty are those when we visited him and his late wife Karen at their home on Long Island. I loved the literature at his house—the rare collection of early editions of Jack London’s books, the collection of early 20th century articles from the radical magazine The Masses. On a table across the room was a photograph of the young Marty, a Brando look-alike, I remarked, and Karen agreed.

Marty was a writer as well as an editor and activist. I know he was working on a novel, The Portuguese Poet, and sent me excerpts. I was impressed.

Karen died not very long before Marty’s own death. A sweet lady and quiet, steadying force in her husband’s life, she had fought a valiant, years-long battle against cancer. It was a huge blow to Marty to lose his lifelong partner. Soon after she died, their beloved Siberian husky, Natasha, also died. I’m sure Marty spent many hours on his sailboat thinking through the losses in his life.

He was a good friend even though we had our disagreements, even some strong ones toward the end. He was one of the tough guys, big and headstrong, but with a heart just as big and just as strong in its empathy for regular folks.

Charles Ensley

I didn’t know Charles Ensley, but I remember hearing Marty Fishgold and others in the New York movement talk about him. Like Marty, he was a fighter on the frontlines, a champion of the city’s social workers for decades as president of the 15,000-member Social Services Employees Union Local 371 (Marty’s local).

“Mr. Ensley was independent, outspoken and often irascible, clashing with other union leaders as well as mayors of both major parties,” labor writer Steven Greenhouse wrote in his obituary in the New York Times.

Ensley, 69, died in June 2010.

A native of Alabama, Ensley was committed to rooting out corruption within labor’s ranks, whether it was vote fraud or embezzlement. He also championed racial equality, and as a black man even took on a top official within Mayor David Dinkins’ administration when he felt she was unfairly bypassing qualified whites—and the city’s civil service rules--in an effort to hire more blacks.

Ensley’s father had worked at the Birmingham News in Birmingham, Ala., and “fought for equal pay for the newspaper’s black employees,” Greenhouse wrote. That’s where the son “learned to stand up for the rights of the downtrodden.”


  1. I am (or maybe was is more appropriate) Marty's first cousin- our mother's were sisters. You really caught his essence. I remember him talking about his visits to Oxford and speaking to your class. Thank you for writing this heartfelt tribute.

  2. Shocking. Silence. Sad.

    Today, almost two years since, I find out Marty has passed way. May he rest in peace and re-unite with Karen.

    Brian Florea

  3. I interned for Marty at the Unionist and not only did he kick my ass there, he educated me with great force and impact. My favorite quote by him remains, "Don't stand in my office talking about doing something. Go to your desk and do it." I loved him and I got to know Bob Fitch through him, and I'm filled with remorse that I didn't keep up with them over the years. I guess I thought they'd be around forever.