Bahr, Morton, 1926-2019

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Morton Bahr was a national labor leader who helped his fellow communication workers survive threats to their jobs posed by digital technology and corporate revamping.

From 1999 to 2001, Mr. Bahr was also the president of the Jewish Labor Committee, a national advocacy group, which said the cause of death was pancreatic cancer.

Mr. Bahr, who began his career as a telegraph operator, was president of the Communications Workers of America from 1985 to 2005, running a union that today represents about 700,000 public and private sector employees in technology, media, airlines and law enforcement.

He presided during the convulsive breakup of ATandT’s Bell System as a telephone service monopoly, as mandated by a 1982 consent decree. Bell had employed a half-million union workers.

After the government filed suit for antitrust law violations, ATandT continued to provide long-distance service while giving up control of local telephone business to what would become independent regional Bell operating companies.

Mr. Bahr devised two strategies that enabled the union to successfully navigate the consolidation in the industry and the automation wrought by the introduction of cellphones and other digital devices. These advances had sharply reduced the need for installers, repairmen and other communication workers.

By forming partnerships with educational institutions and negotiating with management, Mr. Bahr started job retraining programs. He also secured child care benefits and flexible schedules to give employees more latitude for work, study and family.

In 2001, the Morton Bahr Distance Learning Scholarship was established in his honor at SUNY Empire State College to help adult workers with full-time jobs pursue college studies.

He also expanded his base by recruiting members from beyond the volatile telecommunication industry, incorporating the Association of Flight Attendants, the International Typographical Union, the International Union of Electrical Workers, the Newspaper Guild and the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians.

His successor as union president, Chris Shelton, said in a statement, “Morty was comfortable whether he was in the company of presidents of the United States, in the halls of Congress, or on a picket line.”

Morton Bahr was born on July 18, 1926, in Brooklyn to Morton and Elizabeth (Kleinick) Bahr, Jewish immigrants from Russia. He was raised in the Brownsville section. His father worked in the silk business.

After graduating from Samuel J. Tilden High School (in his yearbook he said he aspired to be a teacher), he entered Brooklyn College when he was barely 16.

But his education was curtailed by World War II. (He would eventually receive a bachelor of science degree in 1983, from the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies of Empire State College.) Enlisting as a merchant seaman, he served as a radio operator. He was the last surviving member of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s executive council to have served in World War II, said Michael Sacco, president of the Seafarers International Union.

Mr. Bahr married his girlfriend, Florence Slobodow, during a shore leave in 1945. After returning to sea, he received a message in October 1946 that his wife had given birth to a son. In a memoir, “From the Telegraph to the Internet” (1998), he wrote that when he finally returned home, he told her that he wanted to make one more voyage. “Go ahead,” she replied, “but the baby and I won’t be here when you return.”

Instead, given his shipboard experience, she referred him to a newspaper advertisement for a job opening at the Mackay Radio and Telegraph Company in New York, where he became a telegraph operator.

After a strike there in 1951 crippled the American Communications Association, a loose federation of unions, Mr. Bahr joined the newly constituted Communication Workers. He became an organizer at McKay, which became American Cable and Radio, and in 1954 was elected to lead Local 1172 in New York.

He later organized about 24,000 workers of New York Telephone (now Verizon). As vice president of the union’s regional New York-New Jersey district, he led a 218-day strike against New York Telephone in 1971. That walkout empowered the union in negotiations with ATandT three years later.

After he retired in 2005, Mr. Bahr was on the board of the Elderly Housing Development and Operations Corporation.

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Communications Workers of America Photographs: Part I, Photographic Prints., Bulk, 1960-1988, 1915-1988, (Bulk 1960s-1980s) Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
referencedIn Communications Workers of America. Operators Division. Local 1104. Communications Workers of America, Operators Division, Local 1104 Records, 1949-2001. University at Albany, University Libraries
referencedIn Communications Workers of America, Local 1180 Records, 1956-1986 Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
referencedIn Democratic Socialists of America Audiocassette Collection, 1976-1996 Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
referencedIn Communications Workers of America, District 1 Records, Bulk, 1968-1982, 1946-1989, (Bulk 1968-1982) Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
referencedIn Communications Workers of America. Local 1172. Records, 1953-1993. [ca. 1960s]-1993 (bulk). Churchill County Museum
referencedIn Guide to the Sam Reiss Photographs, circa 1930-1975 Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
referencedIn Communications Workers of America. Communications Workers of America records, 1919-1989 (bulk 1947-1989). Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
referencedIn Communications Workers of America. Audiotape collection, 1952-1987. Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
referencedIn Communications Workers of America. Communications Workers of America records. Addendum, 1939-1998 (bulk 1970-1995). Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
referencedIn Communications Workers of America. District 1. Records, 1946-1989, (bulk 1968-1982). Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
referencedIn Communications Workers of America Records: Addendum, Bulk, 1970-1995, 1939-1998, (Bulk 1970-1995) Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
referencedIn Communications Workers of America Records, Bulk, 1947-1989, 1911-1994, (Bulk 1947-1989) Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
referencedIn Communications Workers of America. Local 1172. Records, 1953-1993. [ca. 1960s]-1993 (bulk) Churchill County Museum
referencedIn Communications Workers of America. Local 1180 (New York, N.Y.). Records, 1956-1980. Churchill County Museum
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith American Federation of Labor corporateBody
associatedWith Communications Workers of America. corporateBody
associatedWith Communications Workers of America. District 1. corporateBody
associatedWith Communications Workers of America. Local 1172. corporateBody
associatedWith Communications Workers of America. Local 1172. corporateBody
associatedWith Communications Workers of America. Local 1180 (New York, N.Y.) corporateBody
associatedWith Communications Workers of America. Operators Division. Local 1104. corporateBody
associatedWith Democratic Socialists of America. corporateBody
leaderOf Jewish Labor Committee (U.S.) corporateBody
associatedWith Reiss, Sam. person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Brooklyn NY US
Washington City DC US
Subject
Jewish Labor Committee--(U.S.)
Communications Workers of America
American Federation of Labor
Unions
American Federation of Labor--Congress of Industrial Orgs (AFL-CIO)
Occupation
Labor Leader
Labor leaders--New York (State)--New York
Union organizer
Union leader
Activity

Person

Birth 1926-07-18

Death 2019-07-30

Male

Americans

English

Information

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