My dear friend Harry Brill, longtime socialist, labor organizer, civil rights activist, journalist, researcher, and sociology professor died in El Cerrito, California on December 28 at the age of 91. With his wife Carol, Harry retired to the East Bay Area in 2004, buying a house in El Cerrito because of the exorbitant cost of housing in neighboring Berkeley, where the two had lived during the 1960s. Before retiring, and for more than forty years, Harry taught as an associate professor in the sociology department at UMass Boston, while Carol served as director of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Association of Social Workers. Although a dedicated teacher of working-class students, Harry told me more than once that UMass was “a place to hang my hat.” His true love was organizing, an activity he pursued with great enthusiasm in the labor, housing, and civil rights movements, and for which he had an extraordinary talent.
Born in the Bronx in 1929, Harry soon moved with his family to Coney Island, Brooklyn’s plebeian beach resort. I sometimes teased him that American capitalism faced two disasters in 1929, the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression and the birth of Harry Brill. Harry came from a working-class Jewish family. His father was a member of the International Fur and Leather Workers Union and an inveterate gambler. Mobsters trying to collect on the father’s debts sometimes burst in on the Brills. Harry’s mother got a job in a nursing home to raise the money necessary to keep the mob from their door, while Harry, still a teenager, moved into his own apartment to escape the chaos at home. In his years in New York City, he held a number of jobs, including working in warehouses, developing film in a photo booth at Coney Island, delivering frozen food to retail stores, and cutting burlap in a factory reeking of chemicals. According to Harry, he was incompetent at all of them. Then he became a New York City cab driver, an occupation far better suited to his talents and taste. In his telling, driving a cab in the 1950s was a communal experience. Once the drivers made their quotas, they were free to spend the rest of the day as they wished. Harry could stop at any of a number of cafeterias throughout the city and be certain to find other drivers drinking coffee, talking over the events of the day, arguing about sports and politics, and philosophizing the way only cabbies can. One of the things he loved about Berkeley was its highly developed coffeehouse culture, an excellent venue for organizing as well as socializing.
While working as a driver, Harry enrolled as a student at Brooklyn College. It took him thirteen years to get his B.A. In the meantime, he met Carol on a blind double date. According to him, it was love at first sight. He immediately fell in love with Carol, and she fell in love with the guy Harry was with. Nevertheless, Harry eventually won Carol’s heart and the two married in 1959. Encouraged by a Brooklyn College professor, Harry applied to graduate school, a possibility that had never before crossed his mind. In 1960, he and Carol enrolled as grad students in the University of California at Berkeley, Harry in the sociology department and Carol in the social work program.
The two soon became politically active on campus. They formed a chapter of campus CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), one of the main civil rights organizations in the urban North. Harry also joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the organization of young activists who risked their lives integrating lunch counters in the Deep South while also conducting the incredibly daring and dangerous Freedom Rides. In 1964, the student rebellion that would dominate the decade made its opening U.S. appearance on the Berkeley campus. Harry was busy with a campaign to force local employers to hire Black people as well as involved in rent strikes, while Carol assumed a leadership role in the student-based Berkeley Free Speech Movement (FSM). After receiving her graduate degree, she applied for a job with a Massachusetts social work agency and discovered that a university administrator had included a letter in her file naming her as a dangerous radical. She was hired anyway, while Harry got a tenure-track teaching position at UMass Boston.
Becoming a professor did not end Harry’s career as an organizer—far from it. He soon became active in the labor movement and organized in the housing projects at Harbor Point across from the university. Most of his publications were related to activism in movements for social justice, which became a problem when he came up for tenure. He had published a book, Why Organizers Fail and a handful of articles in sociology journals. Most of his writings, however, appeared in progressive or socialist magazines including The Nation, Commonweal, New Politics, The Progressive, Crime and Social Justice, and later In These Times, Labor Notes, Against the Current, and the like. In his articles, Harry was adept at reconstructing reliable data from statistics that were often cooked for ideological reasons by government agencies. He used the data to show precisely how health, safety, and wealth are extracted from the lower classes, often with government assistance, and given to those who own and control the big corporations that dominate the capitalist economy.
Harry frequently argued that capitalism is barely distinguishable from organized crime. For example, he investigated the connection between insurance companies and automobile manufacturers on the one hand and car thieves on the other. When he was writing in 1980, the insurers and car makers quietly opposed regulations requiring installation of anti-theft devices. The reason? Theft expands the market for new automobile sales and insurance premiums. At the same time, the insurance companies owned junkyards that sold the Vehicle Identification Numbers of junked vehicles—coded information recording make, model, and year—to thieves who used them to mask the identity of newly stolen cars. Unfortunately, Harry’s work wasn’t what the sociology department had in mind when they hired him. It seems that the less useful writing is for exposing corporate criminality and promoting social change, the better one’s chances at climbing the academic ladder. Still, although he sweated out the process, Harry was granted tenure.
I first met Harry in 1997 in the course of a battle I launched with a colleague in the philosophy department to win full health and pension benefits for part-time faculty, more than forty percent of the teaching workforce at UMass Boston. We assembled a committee of about fifteen people who met twice a week and announced the meetings through flyers posted around campus. After happening upon one of the flyers, Harry phoned me to ask if he could attend our meetings even though he was a tenured professor. I was happy to have him on board, hoping that it would provide some access to the full-time faculty. I knew nothing of Harry’s political writings or his history as an organizer at the time. As an elected member of the faculty union’s executive committee, I insisted that the union make full health and pension benefits for part-timers a priority in contract negotiations but ran into opposition from the union leadership. That was when Harry played an absolutely crucial role. He organized a petition drive among the full-time faculty expressing support for our demands, eventually gathering around 175 signatures. In doing so, he managed to circumvent the union leadership by independently organizing their own base. It was one of the turning points in our struggle, which ended in a remarkable victory. We won full health and pension benefits for those teaching half-time, pay prorated by academic rank, significant salary increases, and, later, full-time appointments for many of us. Over the eight months of the campaign, I got to know Harry as we strategized, schemed, and argued our way to victory. Those involved celebrated the outcome with a party at his home.
Over the seven years that followed, my wife Danielle and I became close friends with Harry and Carol. We often ate in each other’s homes and everyone started to feel like family. After the couple retired in 2004 and moved to California, Harry decided he was through with flying. So, I began week-long yearly visits to their new home in El Cerrito. They settled close to their daughter Deborah, then a teacher and later a middle-school principal who would soon have two daughters of her own. Carol helped raise the grandchildren. When I returned to Boston, Harry and I kept in frequent touch by phone.
When he arrived in the Bay area, Harry was seventy-four. It didn’t take him long to begin organizing. His first major victory involved a machinist strike at the Berkeley Honda dealership. When the dealership was sold, the new owner demanded substantial wage and benefit concessions from the workers, who were forced to respond by striking. It was an obvious attempt to break the union. When Harry got involved only one year after moving, the workers had already been on strike for several months. Anyone who knows anything about the US labor movement knows that striking workers must win quickly. Walking a picket line for months is tantamount to defeat. Harry, however, revitalized the strike by organizing the East Bay Labor and Community Coalition. Community supporters came each week to join workers on their picket line. They also wrote letters to the owner of Berkeley Honda and to the city’s elected officials, and sometimes went en masse to meetings of the city council. At one point, they demonstrated and handed out flyers during a football game at the university’s California Memorial Stadium, which the Honda dealership owner supported as a major donor. After eleven months of the strike, the activists managed to put enough pressure on the mayor of Berkeley to cause him to squeeze the owner. The owner also had real estate interests, and the mayor suggested that he might fail to get the necessary clearances for his projects unless he negotiated an end to the strike.
The Berkeley Honda victory made Harry a local hero. Not only had he helped the workers win what had been a lost strike, but he recruited dozens of new activists in the process. In labor struggles and other social justice campaigns, nothing is more important than winning, and not only for the sake of immediate gains. Victory energizes activists, encouraging them to engage in future battles. That’s the way you build a movement. When the workers’ union, the International Association of Machinists, wanted to present Harry with a plaque commemorating his role in the strike, he insisted that it bear the name of the Labor Community Coalition instead of his own. No matter how indispensable he was in winning the strike, he wanted people to understand that the strength and intelligence of all involved were required to pull off the miracle. Without money or important connections, the power of workers and other “ordinary people” lies in self-organization and collective action.
In the years that followed, Harry played an important role in many other campaigns: winning a $15 per hour minimum wage, assisting a drive to unionize workers at Berkeley Bowl, defending local post offices the feds wanted to shut down, drumming up support for Proposition 30 which increased funding for public education, and opposing high-rise real estate development, a cause of the explosive growth of Berkeley’s homeless population. Then in 2011, before the first days of the Occupy movement, Harry helped create an organization of elderly activists called “Tax the Rich.” Still in existence ten years later, the group meets every week on Solano Avenue to support Medicare, Social Security, racial justice, higher taxes for the wealthy, and a number of other progressive causes. The seniors distribute literature and hold up posters to the honking approval of passing cars.
Harry led Tax the Rich from its beginning in 2011 to early 2019, when he found someone to take his place. Carol was fighting against a devastating case of Parkinson’s disease and Harry wanted to spend his time caring for her. She died at the end of 2019 at the age of eighty-one. Harry and Carol loved one another deeply, with each supporting the other both personally and politically. Naturally, Harry was depressed when Carol passed. He told me in a phone conversation that he wasn’t accustomed to depression. “Normally I’m just a carrier,” he said. Four months later, the COVID-19 pandemic had Californians in a lockdown. Harry was stranded alone in his house in El Cerrito. Relief from isolation came from visits in his backyard with his daughter and two granddaughters.
Although he stopped organizing, Harry had, several years earlier, become a regular contributor of political commentary to Berkeley’s newspaper, The Daily Planet (you can read his articles on their website). He was working on a piece when he died suddenly of a heart episode. I had spoken with him only two days before. He felt physically fit right up to the end. He didn’t even experience the aches and pains common in old age, a benefit, he claimed of having “no moving parts.”
The inspiring thing about Harry is that he managed to combine two characteristics not often seen in the same person. He was a socialist, a genuine radical committed to the creation of a new society, one fit for human habitation. But he dedicated much of his time and savvy intelligence to winning immediate concrete improvements in the lives of workers, the poor, and the racially oppressed. And he never let middle-class niceties stand in the way of his efforts. One of my favorite Brillisms is his motto, “Civility is the enemy of the people.” Thousands are better off because Harry was on the planet.
I would like to give the last word to Harry, with an explanation. Harry taught himself to play the saxophone late in life. He had no pretensions of becoming a serious musician and in fact rarely played for other people. But he had loved the instrument since he was introduced to jazz in the late 1940s, and now he enjoyed playing it himself. The quote I will end with is from his article titled, “First-Person Politics: Why Bother?” In it, Harry reflects on the connection between his long experience of political struggle and what he got out of playing the sax:
I have asked myself the question of whether there is any underlying principle that has propelled me over the many decades that I have been active, despite the frustrations, obstacles, and disappointments. Yes indeed. I think there is. The answer is implied in my musical involvement. Metaphorically speaking, I would like us to live in a society in which a major concern of people everywhere is similar to mine at the moment, to gracefully reach the high notes on their instrument. In other words, during our very short life span people deserve to experience the joy of living. I would like to believe that struggling for a better life for all, ranging from our own families to strangers we have never met, will move us closer to achieving the peace of mind and the joy that the human race is entitled to. Yes, that’s why the object of our efforts cannot be only ourselves. Still, those who are more fortunately situated should feel free to enjoy life while you are helping others to enjoy it too.
Gary Zabel is a retired philosophy professor.