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Bill Kemsley

09/03/07 5:55PM By Howard Coffin

(HOST) Today, commentator Howard Coffin is thinking about workers rights and a Vermonter who was both an activist and a labor historian.   

(COFFIN) To understate an understatement, I didn't learn much about labor unions growing up in Woodstock. In that Republican bastion, my father's boss wouldn't take a Roosevelt dime in change (though he never refused a Social Security check.) And people would point across the street at one of a tiny minority in town and whisper, "There's a Democrat."

I later realized that labor activity was going on in many parts of Vermont when I was a child, including the machine tool plants 15 and 25 miles down the road in Windsor and Springfield. And strikes happened when I was a kid, in Burlington and Winooski mills.  Labor organizing even brought Samuel Gompers and Emma Goldman to Barre.

Bill Kemsley told me a lot of that when I met him in 1968. Bill was a former labor organizer who had come out of retirement to work in a Windham County War on Poverty office. He spoke that summer at an anti-poverty conference at the Pico Ski Area that I covered for the Rutland Herald.

Barrel-chested Bill Kemsley, with great bushy eyebrows shading deep soulful eyes, had a voice that could fill a meeting hall.

He said that day, "If this nation can afford to put a man on the moon, it can help all its people walk upright in this society."

He said, "Our culture in this nation is one of unbridled greed."

He said, "No organization has fought harder for the dignity of man than organized labor." In an interview he told me the only way to end poverty in America was for the poor to organize. "And it won't be easy," he said, pointing to a scar on his forehead and explaining that he got it on a picket line outside a Detroit auto plant. He said, "The goons put Walter Ruther and me over the hood of a car and beat the daylights out of us."

"Where you from," he asked?


He said he guessed there were no unions there. Then he asked what a worker in my home town was paid.

"Maybe two dollars an hour?"

He said it would be a lot less if somebody somewhere hadn't organized.

"How many hours a week do people work, 40 right?  Be 60 or 80 if it wasn't for unions."

I wrote a story about what Kemsley said that day, and during the next few years I got to know him. "You can make a difference," I heard him say to people, time and again.

Bill's been gone a long time now. But I hear he went on speaking and trying to organize people just about until the day he died. I think of him every Labor Day.

Howard Coffin is an author and historian who's specialty is the civil war.

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