Barry Bluestone

Professor of Political EconomyBarry Bluestone

Founding director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, and founding Dean of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University.  Growing up in a UAW family, Barry has worked with the trade union movement since he was a teenager. As a student, he helped found the University of Michigan Student Employees Union (UMSEU) in the 1960’s and was a member of UAW Local 898 at a local Ford plant.  Later as a professor at UMass Boston he was an active member of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.  He helped develop the UAW-GM Paid Education Leave training program in the 1980s and has a long history of working with the National Education Association.   

Bluestone is author of hundreds of articles and monographs and co-author of eleven books that include: The Deindustrialization of America (1982), The Great U-Turn: Corporate Restructuring and the Polarizing of America (1988), Growing Prosperity: The Battle for Growth with Equity in the 21st Century (2000). In 1995, he was Special Policy Advisor to House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt working on the federal minimum wage, the Earned Income Tax Credit, labor law reform, and fair trade.  He is a founding board member of the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. 


Barry Bluestone Acceptance Speech Cushing-Gavin Award Dinner December 7, 2012

Well, I’m the guy who’s between you and dinner. So I plan to keep it fairly short, but I do want to thank Bishop Dooher and congratulate my fellow awardees: John Dumas, John Dunlop and Ken Grace.

I have to tell you a story. I grew up not in this town but in the great city of Detroit, Michigan as the son of a UAW international representative who you’ll hear a bit more about. I went through a terrific public high school, Mumford High School, made famous by Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop.  At 5’ 6” and 144 pounds, and not particularly swift of foot, I played third-string pulling guard on the Mumford varsity football team, helping the team, if memory serves, to a 0 and 11 season.

In 1962, I entered the University of Michigan. I paid my way through that school working summers on a Ford assembly line building carburetors for the first Ford Mustangs.  In fact, in those days, we were selling so many cars that I had to work on Sunday, July 4th, a 10 hour shift.  I made enough money in a single day, in a single shift, to pay my entire tuition for the fall of that year. 

My darling wife Mary Ellen and I have a son Josh who’s at Northwestern University.   I can assure you his education is costing me a lot more than mine did!  (Laughter)

I arrived here in Boston in 1971 after receiving my Ph.D. at the University of Michigan working under a labor economist who extolled the virtues of the trade union movement, the brilliant and kind Harold Levinson.  I began teaching at Boston College, a Jesuit University – and to be honest, I’m not Catholic.

But I remember after four years of working at Boston College, I ran into Fr. Ed Boyle, and we became fast friends. One day I turned to Fr. Ed, as I called him, and said, “You know, Father, I’ve now lived in Boston for four years, but I honestly just don’t feel at home yet.”  He gave me that big wonderful laugh and put his arm around me and said “Don’t you worry, Barry.   After 3 or 4 generations, you’re gonna be right at home.” (Laughter) 

The fact is that I feel right at home, right here tonight with you. (Applause)

In the years that I’ve been here I’ve had the opportunity to work with many of you—through the Harvard Trade Union Program, the Mass Teachers Association, through the IUE and other unions. And it was working with the Labor Guild, first with Fr. Gavin, then Fr. Boyle, that I learned to love this city, and learned to love the labor movement that I had adopted after all those years in Detroit. 

Tonight also brings back phenomenal memories for me, because my father began during World War II as a grinder in a General Motors plant making bearings that were going into tanks that went lend-lease to England during World War II. My father built up his union cred, and over time ended up as Vice President of the Autoworkers Union.  One of our dearest friends was Walter Reuther, one of the greatest labor leaders of all time.

But you might ask:  How does a Bluestone get into the labor movement?

Here’s my dad’s story.  At the beginning of World War II, at the age of 22, my father couldn’t get into the Army, because of a childhood disease.  His dear friend, Ann Massacara, a wonderful Italian lady, who would later become my godmother consoled my dad, telling him, “You know, Irv. There are more ways to stop the Nazis than going into the Army.  I’m working at this GM plant, and I think I can get you a job there. It might not be real easy, because the place is completely Italian.”  (Today, it would look a little like a scene from The Sopranos.) Dear Ann Massacara got my dad a job in that plant.

­­­After working for no more than two years in the plant, my dad decided to run for union office for the first time.  To Gilberto, the president of the local, he said “You know, I really want to get more involved in the union. I’d like to run for office.” And Gilberto says,  “You know, even though you’re not Italian, you’re a pretty damn good guy, and we’re going to allow you to run for alternate committeeman on the midnight shift in District 46.” My dad said, “Great, I love it.” 

The day before the election Gilberto came to my dad’s work station and said, “Irv, I’ve got some bad news for you. You know my brother Gianni? 

“Yeah, I know Gianni, he works in District 41?” 

“He’s our printer and he printed up the ballot for tomorrow’s election and he spelled your name wrong.”

 My dad said, “Is there any way to change that? “No, it takes two days for the ink to dry, but don’t worry Irv, they spelled your first name right.”

 “How did they butcher my second name?”

“Well, they spelled it B-L-U-E-S-T-O-N-I.” 

If it hadn’t been for that ballot, my dad would have been a New York Policeman and not Vice President of the UAW. (Laughter and Applause)

I want to dedicate this award to my parents, because Irving and Zelda Bluestone were in the trade union movement from 1940 right through to the end of their lives.  They educated their children – my sisters Karen, Maura, and me — to always fight for the right, and to remember that solidarity forever with the union movement is the way to get that done.  

What adds to how special this evening is to me is that in 1992, exactly 20 years ago this month , my dad and I published a book together.   It was called Negotiating the Future: A Labor Perspective for American Business, and in it, we laid out our ideas about where the labor movement had to go in the 21st Century.

In that book, we said that labor and management had to take greater strides than ever before to work together given the global competition we face. That meant instead of simply treating workers better, management had to be willing to share decision-making authority with them.

Instead of workers’ input being limited to the factory floor or the outer office, labor must be brought into the inner circle where the strategic decisions about the entire enterprise are made.  Instead of trying to jettison their unions, management must be willing to welcome them as a constructive force for the good of the company, the workers, and their families.

And we believe that.

Today I’m proud to say that with Nancy Peace right here (a former Boyle Awardee), we have begun the Massachusetts Education Partnership working with the Mass MTA, the Mass AFT, the Massachusetts Association of Superintendents, the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, and the Rennie Center.  Just this week we had 300 people meet to build a new movement— built on our union tradition— to improve schools all across Massachusetts.

It turns out that this book, Negotiating the Future, which has guided my work ever since, would never had seen the light of day if it weren’t for the two women in our lives: my mother Zelda and my wife, Mary Ellen.  When my dad and I would come to verbal blows sometimes over a particular sentence or two, both would sit us down, quiet us down – and they would negotiate the future for us.  (Laughter and applause.)

Thank you very much.  

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