Substance Archive

Opinion | September 2002 Issue

Editorial :As a new militancy grows at Labor Day...

A labor leader’s passing

“Bob Healey was organized. Knowing his days were numbered because of the cancer inside him, he selected much which occurred at the ceremonies for his passing,” one admirer said. “The poem about facing what may come was read. The music he loved was selected to be sung by the choir. The funeral cards had the old saying about “…the road rise up to meet you...”

At the Drake and Sons Funeral Home on N. Western, the family came first, led by Cathleen Kahn Healey, his wife, and children Amy, Michael, Steven, Kathleen, Philip, Meg and Elizabeth. They all stood in the reception line. The Chicago Teachers’ Union officers, led by President Deborah Lynch, the office personnel, and staffers like Sarah Loftus, stood as an honor guard next to Bob during the entire evening of July 25.

The next morning, at Old St. Patrick’s Church, an altar full of priests stood to celebrate the mass in his honor. The full choir sang the songs he loved.

Healey had left the CTU to be President of the Chicago Federation of Labor, passing on the torch he had lit to those he had mentored, Jackie Vaughn and Jon Kotsakis. Both preceded him in death.

By the 1990s, he’d been appointed to the Illinois Labor Relations Board, leaving the CFL in the hands of his close friend, Don Turner. Later, he became Director of the State labor Department. In May Governor Ryan appointed him Chair of the ILRB.

So the famous, wealthy, and powerful were there at funeral for him. But, so were the teachers who had been with him in the early days like Dick Tryba (Jones) and Bob Bradley (Austin), Brenda Ford, Carlotta Goodson, and Judy Dever, who has taught for years at the school named “Healy” (but with a different spelling. When Bob Healey came up through the union’s ranks and then ruled the union, teachers were identified with their schools because they generally stayed in one school for their entire careers — unlike today when they are shifted everywhere. The working people he tried to help to a better life joked that he even tried to organize hospitable workers as he lay dying at Northwestern Hospital.

Beside Father Wallz, the speakers were Governor George Ryan, who remembered his hard work. According to Ryan, even when he visited the hospital in the weeks before the end, Healey said he was sorry he couldn’t finish the last project upon which he was working. Ryan said that Healey was a great man who would rather negotiate behind the scenes and bring all factions together. He knew a different Healey than I did. The Healey I knew not only helped lead us to our first strike vote (in the late 1960s, when John Desmond was union president), but on our first few strikes (in 1971, 1973, 1975, 1980, and 1983).

In fact, Robert M. Healey led more strikes than almost any other union leader in Chicago during the second half of the 20th Century. George Ryan may remember a compromiser, but the members of the Chicago Teachers Union still remember a man who was willing to negotiate a deal, but also to lead a strike to win it.

I will always remember him, cigarette in hand, arguing over militancy and tactics, his arm on a copy machine, with Jon Kotsakis. Healey was the one in favor of the more direct confrontation, Kotsakis looking to compromise sooner.

Don Turner, who was with him like a brother at both the CTU and CFL, spoke at the funeral. He said felt that Healey was a re-incarnation of an Irish Chieftain. I think he learned effective military strategy while serving with the military for two years in Korea. His two years service entitled him to college, graduating from DePaul, then from the University of Chicago for a masters, which enabled him to teach English at Gage Park High School. He loved that a way he never really stopped being a teacher.

But, he was also the mastermind who orchestrated the maneuvers that led to the first strike vote over the issue of better conditions and the CTU being the sole bargaining agent for teachers. A group of mostly high school teachers regularly met at Bob Fortini’s (of Schurz) to plan strategy for both the committees and house meetings. Dave Peterson (now with the principals’ association) told me to go. I remember some of people there were Bob Lippa, Lester Davis, Glen Hambrick (later CTU Treasurer), Kotsakis, and Cathy Desmond.

Cathy Desmond’s father, John Desmond, was union president at the time. He did not want a strike vote to be approved, feeling it too risky to fight with the elder Mayor Daley at the height of Daley’s powers. Healey told each one who represented a faction that they would shout “no’’ when the vote was taken with only a small group shouting “yes.” He told each person that they must take positions at each microphone so that whoever spoke next would ask for a “roll call” vote.

Desmond was assured by the large number of “No” voices and let the roll call be made. Suddenly, as each delegate was called, she or he voted “Yes.” When his own daughter voted “Yes”, Desmond knew what had happened. She said she had realized that the time had come to be sole bargaining agent and added her “Yes.” Desmond knew he had been had.

Afterward, a fearful Desmond and vice-president Vivian Gallagher went to the bar and prepared for what was to come next. The CTU won the bargaining rights and had its first contract without a strike. Healey was still a member of TAC at that point, but as a committee member made his points felt by the CTU leadership which soon had someone retire and made Healey the offer of the job. He had passed the principal’s exam at that time. So had Dave. Dave did not run for union office since he was offered a principal’s job immediately. Healey, probably because of his Union activism, was passed over for a particular appointment he had wanted. Luckily for all unionists and teachers, before another appointment could be made, he took the CTU job, becoming financial secretary.

Don Turner broke up as he ended his speech. He wasn’t the only one.

The younger Healey understood power. He loved confrontation. Like an architect he began to include other groups in the CTU. The concept of including groups such as teachers aides (as they were then called) or auxiliary personnel was Healey’s idea. Along the way, the college teachers had to separate and become their own union. After Healey, the school board began nibbling way, taking out the assistant principals through changes in their jobs in 1996. But the idea of whatever group the Board invented (Community Reps now do what a Truant Officer was supposed to do — find missing kids) being recruited and organized was Healey’s. Not only did other teacher groups start to be more militant like Chicago (and New York’s) teachers, but other white-collar groups started to organize into unions.

One of Healey’s legacies is for white-collar groups organize and form a union and fight as a group. That process is still going on. It will continue to go on. As Carlotta Goodson said: “He mentored me with the skills work as a union member and to be a survivor!”

“ He showed me how to think in an organized way,” Or Brenda Ford said, “to not be afraid, and to work hard. He always appreciated the hard work done by the rank and file. He noticed this kind of work.”

Dennis Gannon, present leader of the CFL since Turner’s retirement last year, spoke. He told of Healey solidifying “Support within Chicago unions” for each other. He told of Healey’s bringing the CFL to political awareness for individual politicians. He taught unions to back those who were “friends” of the union regardless of party affiliations. His ability to use strategy helped to bring peace to labor with unions working with politicians for the goal of better benefits.

He had always been one could ride “the tide in the affairs of fortune. “Because of his work with the Federal Reserve to which he had been appointed by Clinton, his State jobs, CFL, and CTU, politicians like Daley and Madigan as well as other powerful people came to the funeral and humbly (a rarity) paid their respects by simply being unobtrusive, and simply being part of the crowd paying their respects. James Alexander CTU administrators as Sarah Loftus and Cathy Marusarj and others represented the CTU.

Amy, Bob Healey’s eldest, and a teacher in a Catholic school, spoke for the family. She told of each one’s favorite anecdote as a father.

She spoke of the holidays and her father’s joy in watching and working with his large number of grandchildren. She couldn’t know about his concern for his kids while working. He would maneuver to take a break even in negotiations so he could be with for his kids. He’d always stop whatever important task in which he was involved and run to wherever he was needed for his family. He was always first and last a family man.

As Bob Fortini said: “What always struck me about him was his integrity in all that he did. He knew what he wanted. He knew a strong group which supported each other was needed to gain his goals.” Fortini, who had been Strike Coordinator for the entire Northwest side for every strike was there at the onset. He said,”

Many of us first met Bob Healey at the formation of the Teachers’ Action Committee (TAC) in the mid 60’s. We were impressed by his power as a speaker, his decisiveness, intelligence, commanding physical presence, and belief that teachers could be both professionals and trade unionists. We knew that here was our leader.

His eldest child, Amy ended with Horatio’s word to Hamlet,” Good night, sweet prince, flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” Certainly, being the head of a family was the role he had. About 300 BC Mencius in Greece said, “The root of the kingdom is in the State. The root of a family is the one at its head.”

Sarah Loftus, administrative assistant to Healey’s latest successor Deborah Lynch, said: “He was a family man. The funeral and services were intimate, close and respectful family affair. But that family extended to the Union and to the workers of the union as well. We were all his family.


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