For a lifelong labor educator, the end of the ninth inning arrives

By Don McIntosh

Bob Bussel did security for Cesar Chavez. He had lunch with the real Norma Rae. And he spent 27 years as a labor educator, training generations of labor leaders. On December 15, age 70, he’ll retire after 20 years directing the Labor Education and Research Center (LERC) at University of Oregon. 

LERC trains union leaders on how to negotiate contracts and defend members, and produces research reports that help advocates pass pro-worker legislation. But year after year, Bussel has had to deploy every bit of political skill he could muster to keep it funded.

At his Nov. 18 retirement party, Oregon State Rep. Paul Holvey roasted Bussel for those never-ending appeals to help protect LERC’s budget, but also thanked him for decades of service to working people.

Bussel first encountered the labor movement in 1973 while living in a New Jersey farmhouse collective. There he was schooled about unionism by his roommate, a heavy highway laborer who’d taken part in wildcat strikes. Bussel had grown up in Memphis and New Jersey and had a degree in history from Cornell University. Now he started attending grocery store pickets in support of the United Farm Workers, and took a job working on the union’s boycott campaign for room and board and $5 a week. He also went to work in a factory making beverage cartons, where he joined the United Auto Workers. 

In 1976, he went to work for Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) as the New Jersey coordinator of its boycott campaign against JP Stevens. JP Stevens was an early adopter of the antiunion playbook that later came to define corporate America. It shifted production from the Northeast to the nonunion South, and when ACTWU followed and tried to organize, the company broke federal labor law every which way. At a mill in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, the union won anyway, and the story of that campaign became the basis for Norma Rae, a 1979 film starring Sally Field that received four Oscar nominations. Bussel was one of about 30 staff employed full-time by the union to promote the boycott of JP Stevens’ sheets and towels, which were marketed under numerous brand names, and he met and lunched with Crystal Lee Sutton, whose story the film was based on. 

While working for the union, he took night classes at Rutgers University and earned a master’s degree in education with a labor emphasis.

In 1983, he helped found the American Labor Museum outside Paterson, New Jersey, at a house that had played a role in the Industrial Workers of the World’s (IWW) famous 1913 Paterson silk strike. That year he also met artist Jewel Nelson. They’ve been married since 1986 and have two grown daughters.

He also spent three or four  years as an organizer for ACTWU, and helped workers win a union at several textile firms. But the Reagan era of plant closures and union-busting had begun, and it was tough going. 

In 1986, burned out, he left ACTWU and returned to Cornell to pursue a Ph.D. in history while teaching at its industrial labor relations school. For his Ph.D. thesis, he wrote biographies of three independent radical intellectuals: United Mine Workers organizer Powers Hapgood, civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, and labor journalist Harvey Swados.

Ph.D. in hand, he went to work as a labor educator at Penn State. There he trained union stewards, taught classes on internal organizing, and led strategic planning projects for unions, while working closely with a central labor council in Reading, Pennsylvania.

In 2001, he moved to Eugene to serve as director of LERC, and spent the next two decades training Oregon union leaders. He also collaborated on research projects designed with real-world impact in mind. Bussel says he looks back with particular pride on an early 2000s study of privatization. Big corporations were pitching budget-pinched school districts on the idea of saving money by contracting out cafeteria, custodial, and school bus operations. But LERC showed that the savings came from slashing wages and benefits, and that school employees like custodians weren’t just janitor/cleaners but reliable building managers who looked out for kids. Oregon School Employees Association took those findings and gave presentations to school boards around the state, and unions helped pass legislation barring privatization if savings would come solely from slashing compensation. 

Over the years Bussel’s passions also led him to research and publish two books. From Harvard to the Ranks of Labor, published in 1999, was based on his Ph.D. thesis. Fighting for Total Person Unionism, published in 2015, tells the story of a Teamster official and a civil rights leader who teamed up to  fight for public housing, public transportation, and other public goods in St. Louis.

Over the 27 years he worked as a labor educator, Bussel says he got his greatest fulfillment from helping local union members gain a sense of confidence and hope that through organization and solidarity, they can change their lives.

But the perennial budget fight was a constant stress. Within the university, LERC is classified as an extension program, serving the public rather than offering for-credit courses. That repeatedly put LERC at risk when university administrators were looking for something to cut. In 2019, University of Oregon went from contributing two-thirds of LERC’s budget to one-third. But the Oregon Legislature stepped in and now directly appropriates much of the remainder.

Bussel leaves LERC in the hands of its two remaining faculty: Gordon Lafer and Mark Brenner. They will serve as co-chairs while the center hires two more faculty in the next year.

In retirement, Bussel says he intends to be an active senior citizen, emphasis on “citizen.” 

“In our culture, the dominant gene is individualism, self interest, personal freedom,” Bussel said in his retirement address. “But there’s a recessive gene in our culture, and that’s our faith in collective action, solidarity and mutual aid. It’s the Knights of Labor concept, that an injury to one is the concern of all…. We may not win every fight in the labor movement, but we are always, always, always fighting for the right things.”

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