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November 2014

 

In remembrance of Robin Williams
and Pete Seeger, union activists

Susan Rubenstein DeMasi

 

robin williams
"Robin Williams" is licensed by APB Photography under CC by 2.0.

When you think of Robin Williams, who died this past August, you probably remember the many characters he portrayed, from the zany Mork, to the serious and complicated John Keating (Dead Poets Society), to the wise and lovable Mrs. Doubtfire. Or maybe you think back to his off-the-wall improvisations and frenetic appearances on late night talk shows. Your children might know him from the animated characters he voiced in the films Aladdin and Happy Feet.

But the actor and comedian par excellence also brought his talents and energies beyond the theatrical realm and into the sphere of union activist. He joined the Screen Actors’ Guild (SAG) at the age of 26. When the Writers’ Guild of America went on strike in 2007, Williams walked the picket line on a cold November day, bringing bagels, donuts and good cheer in support of his union brothers and sisters. (Search YouTube if you want to see him riff on that with David Letterman on the Late Night show that aired January 2, 2008.) Williams fought for the rights of the less fortunate and contributed his talents through the nonprofit charity Comic Relief. The tributes paid to him by SAG and other unions were well deserved.

pete seeger
"Pete Seeger" is licensed by Paul VanDerWerf under CC by 2.0.

Another loss this year was long time political activist and folk singer Pete Seeger, who died in January at the age of 94. His decades-long support of labor unions and activities on behalf of social justice issues are extensive. He was a labor activist during tumultuous times, showing his commitment through protest and song.

Seeger co-wrote the anthem "Talking Union," which appeared on the classic album with the Almanac Singers, Talking Union and Other Union Songs. Smithsonian Folkways describes the album as "an enduring collection of working man’s anthems that have been passed down through generations of laborers."

Seeger helped popularize the song "Which Side are You On," written by Florence Reece in 1931.

Come all of you good workers
Good news to you I’ll tell
Of how that good old union
Has come in here to dwell.

And just for the record, Seeger is named as a social justice hall of famer in the book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame by Peter Dreier. Yes, your college libraries have two copies of this.

Certainly the labor union movement lost other members and leaders this past year whose names were not so well known and never appeared in lights. So, along with Williams and Seeger, we salute them. But it is also nice to know that the spirit of union activism resides in some of our favorite entertainers who use their gifts to spread the good word.