Center Moriches, NY 11934
October 19, 1917 –
June 7, 2012
Robert Schrank, Ph.D., a prominent labor leader in the 1930s-1950s, former City Commissioner under Mayor Lindsay and renowned expert at The Ford Foundation on labor negotiations and workplace issues, died on Thursday, June 7, 2012, in Center Moriches, NY, at the age of 94.
From young political activist and union leader to foundation professional and management consultant for global corporations, Schrank lived a life based on empathy and principles for workers and workplace issues; and, as a union activist, was involved in some of the major political and social upheavals of the twentieth century.
In one of his two books, Wasn’t That a Time? Growing Up Radical and Red in America, Schrank described the life events of his role in the rise of industrial unions in the 1930s and 1940s. He was part of the radical world of true believers, elected President of the local 402 of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) at a young age. During his time as president of the local, membership grew by leaps and bounds as the union pursued a policy emphasizing the class struggle for workers.
Schrank was a rebel in the union landscape, being expelled three times from union office for stances he took supporting workers in opposition to some ideas within the union leadership. In a landmark First Amendment case (Schrank vs. Brown) the State Supreme Court of New York twice returned him to membership. Convinced by the early 1950s of the failure of socialism in the Soviet Union; he, however, remained faithful to the desires and needs of the rank and file working people throughout the remainder of his own working and personal life.
One of Schrank’s most memorable union experiences was organizing a rare general strike in 1945 in Stamford, Connecticut. An opening shot in the post-World War II anti-union environment was fired by the Yale & Towne Manufacturing Company, which simply refused to bargain, even though the IAM local had been certified as the workers’ bargaining agenda by the National Labor Relations Board. After a long strike, Schrank rallied other union support for Yale & Towne workers by successfully organizing a rare general strike that shut down the city for an entire day leading to the end of the long IAM strike. Later, as a union organizer, in 1954, Schrank spent the longest, coldest winter of his life working to reorganize and restore the Montana local of the Mine Mill and Smelter Workers’ Union.
Following his union organizing days, Schrank became a plant manager for a short time before becoming a Director in Mobilization for Youth, one of the country’s newest, and most successful manpower programs for troubled youth in New York City. Schrank later became Assistant Commissioner for the City of New York under Mayor Lindsay, responsible for the operation of the city’s manpower programs. This job was not without controversy as a congressman from the Bronx had attacked Schrank as a radical and called on any federal funds for the city of New York be withheld until Schrank was discharged. Mayor Lindsay supported Schrank saying that he knew Schrank and that he was hired for the record of his achievements, not his politics, and that was what the city needed.
As a Project Specialist at The Ford Foundation from the 1960s through 1980, Schrank’s numerous projects were centered on workplace issues. Schrank was instrumental in organizing a “Workers Exchange.” The idea of the exchange was to have workers from a particular industry to become visiting, working employees, in plants that were doing experiments in alternative work organizations. The exchanges that took place involved auto workers from Detroit to Saab in Sweden, nurses from California to the National Health Service in England, longshoremen from San Francisco to Rotterdam, and policemen from Hartford, Connecticut to London and Amsterdam. The results of these exchanges were helpful in thinking about how work can be reorganized, and how that reorganization can, and needs to, involve the workers in the organization.
Schrank wrote about his extraordinary and varied work experiences from skilled machinist to union leader to NYC Commissioner to Ford Foundation professional in his first book, Ten Thousand Working Days. Schrank’s broad work experience provided a realistic basis for a personal and social portrayal of work, its pain and pleasures, its frustrations and satisfactions. His life’s professional narrative served a special purpose by bringing together in the context of his own work experience the sociology and psychology of work and what really happens on the job. His writings were almost always from the point of view of the rank and file, whether describing his role in the leadership of the New York State Machinists union or as a corporate consultant.
Robert Schrank was born October 19, 1917, into a New York City immigrant family in the Bronx that was part of New York’s large German socialist community, a community of political and intellectual individuals. At fourteen, he left school and was sent off to work. It was not until his forties that he entered Brooklyn College and received a bachelor’s degree, going on in later years to earn his Masters and Ph.D. in the sociology of work.
After retiring from The Ford Foundation, Schrank moved full-time with his wife, Kathleen Gunderson, to their home on Moriches Bay in Center Moriches, NY, where he treasured the nature and beauty of the area. He spent many years sailing the waters off Long Island, organized and led efforts to turn the 263-acre “Havens Estate” into what is now the Terrell River County Park Preserve. The skills he learned as a machinist were used to build many finely crafted pieces of antique furniture for his dear friends and family. Their home was often filled with the same enjoying evenings of deep discussions along with much merriment and singing.
In his retirement, Bob Schrank continued to be involved with issues related to working people consulting to major corporations and at Standard-Knapp, Inc., serving from 1985-2011 as their longest Outside Director. Bob received many awards over his life, but the most important award he received was a Lifetime Contribution to Social Justice for Working People award presented to him in 2008 from The Center for Study of Working Class Life, Stony Brook University.
Dr. Schrank is survived by his loving best friend and wife, Kathleen Gunderson; daughter Elizabeth Bessin of Santa Fe, New Mexico; son Fredrick (Barbara) of Madison, WI; granddaughter Amrita Bessin (Robert Cohen) of Santa Monica, CA; grandson, Theo Bessin of San Francisco, CA; granddaughter Allie Schrank of Madison, WI, great-grandson Soren Cohen of Santa Monica, CA and many beloved lifelong friends.