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Moe Foner Dies; Promoted
Working-Class Culture


Moe Foner
Moe Foner

Moe Foner, who died Jan. 10 at 86, was a key leader in Local 1199, the New York-based hospital and healthcare workers’ union. But Foner is best known for his vision and success in promoting workers’ culture. "I operated under the theory that a good union doesn’t have to be dull," he told an interviewer two years ago.

A lifelong resident of New York, Foner and his three brothers shared a commitment to workers’ and progressive causes. The late Philip Foner was a prolific and noted labor historian; his twin, Jack, also deceased, wrote highly regarded books on African American history; Henry Foner became president of the Fur and Leather Workers Union.

When the Foner brothers lost their jobs in the 1940s for their political beliefs, they briefly supported themselves by forming a swing band. Moe played the saxophone.

In 1945, he became education director of Department Store Local 1250, and in 1951, the social and cultural director of District 65 of the Distributive Workers. His job included arranging acts for the union’s nightclub on Saturday nights. Among the artists he hired were singers Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte and comics Jack Gilford and Sam Levinson.

Foner went to work for Local 1199 (then part of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union) as its education and cultural director and newspaper editor in 1945. He later became executive secretary.

At that time, Local 1199 represented pharmacy employees. Six years later, Local 1199 embarked on an ambitious plan to organize the hundreds of thousands of unorganized orderlies, laundresses and other low-paid, mostly minority workers in New York’s hospitals. Foner took a leading role in building crucial coalitions between the union and civil rights leaders, cultural workers and political figures.


During the 46-day strike in 1959 that won union recognition at seven major hospitals, Foner enlisted the aid of civil rights leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King. During a bitter 56-day strike against Beth El Hospital, he recruited Malcolm X. As Foner pointed out in a Dec. 11, 1992 UE NEWS article, "For Malcolm X, this was the first and only time he took part in a mass campaign together with whites and the first and only time he identified with a labor union struggle."

Local 1199 joined with UE and other unions in opposing the Vietnam War, earning Foner a place on President Nixon’s enemies list.

Under Foner’s leadership, Local 1199 in 1972 became the first union to install a permanent art gallery in its headquarters building. In 1979, Foner established Bread and Roses, a union cultural program. (The name derived from the slogan of the 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Mass.) Bread and Roses brought singers and theater troupes to hospitals and nursing homes, published a series of outstanding posters and produced a musical, "Take Care," about hospital work. A 1991 conference on workers’ culture organized by Bread and Roses, brought together workers and artists in an effort to regain labor’s voice and militancy. The conference was the subject of a cover article in the Dec. 6, 1991 UE NEWS.

A recent project, the poster series "Women of Hope," celebrated the achievements of African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American and American Indian women, including Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers Union.

"I’ve just not known anybody else who is so richly aware of the benefits, the joys, the necessity of arts to ordinary people," said actress and author Ruby Dee, among the many performers recruited by Foner before gaining stardom.

UE News - 2/02

Home -> UE News -> 2002 Archives -> Article

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