With a brown beard and long hair showing signs of gray, Phil Cohen fits the look of a local person in the arts and letters.
In appearance, he reminds me of a friend who had an appointment at the Ford Foundation, but the security guard kept throwing him out of the lobby.
In substance he embodies a wealth of contrasts. He grew up in New York City, and after almost four decades in central North Carolina, he remains clearly a New Yorker.
Once a gypsy cab driver, he became a labor union organizer. His experience in the local for Chapel Hill bus drivers thrust him into textile union work and a bitter struggle in Jackson, Tennessee. Last summer the University of Tennessee Press published his book recounting that battle between workers and owners.
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Cohen came here 37 years ago.
“I wanted to escape the mean streets of New York and live closer to nature,” he says. “You might consider me a Charles Dickens character who made it out alive. I got a job with Chapel Hill Transit in 1979, and joined a union local that was ineffective representing employees.”
After a couple of years of wanting someone to “implement proactive representation” for the Chapel Hill Transit drivers, Cohen realized he was that someone.
During seven years as their chief steward, he attracted the attention of union leaders. By 1988 he found himself working as a lead organizer and negotiator for Workers United (then known as ACTWU and later UNITE).
The union sent him the next spring to Jackson to revive a declining local. Over the next year, the textile mill twice changed hands, while management blamed the union, rather than poor decisions, for the mill’s problems. Trying to hold a strike together after the mill had shut down and reopened to kill the local, Cohen became increasingly enmeshed the lives of the local union leaders and members.
“Organizing isn’t about bringing people into your world and values,” he says. “It’s about venturing into theirs, and from that vantage point, teaching them to stick together and fight for a common cause.”
Thus Cohen’s “The Jackson Project: War in the American Workplace” is like no other labor history I have ever read. A riveting memoir, it takes readers inside the struggle with vivid portraits of real people fighting for their lives and livelihoods in a rapidly changing environment. The book also details his challenges being a parent with a home and young daughter in Chapel Hill while fighting for his members nine hours to the west.
He told me why he wanted to recount these events of almost three decades ago.
“There is no element of our society more misunderstood than unions,” he says. “ Books about unions are generally written by intellectuals standing on the outside, and looking in. I wanted to share the reality from the perspective of an organizer who lived the fight – within the context of a dramatic blue-collar thriller that would tear people’s heart out.”
After Jackson, Cohen helped lead a number of actions, especially in the Greensboro area: Highland Yarn, Cone Mills, Kmart Distribution Center, and Serta Mattress.
Still called on occasionally by the union, he has settled into the rural life near Prospect Hill, writing and making music. He and longtime partner Patricia Ford have a new album, “Threads of Gold.” He suggests that the connection with his labor work and the lyrics of his song is more personal than direct.
“My songs start out autobiographically and then expand into the universal. The lyrics have a working class flavor, because that’s who I am.”
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