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labor The Passing of a Troublemaker

Frank Emspak, anti-war activist and labor leader, spent his life advancing workers’ rights.

Frank Emspak, retired, University of Wisconsin School for Workers, Photo courtesy of Frank Emspak.

A unique figure within a unique generation of activists, Frank Emspak (born June 21, 1943 and died June 14, 2024) spent his final days as he always lived: offering inspiration and strategic advice to those around him. In this case, it was to his hospital caregivers who are currently grappling with a hard-pressed union struggle. He had a lot of useful things to say—which is to say he was himself to the end. His contributions to the labor movement, civil rights, and the struggle for peace will long be remembered.

Frank inherited his father’s legacy. He was the son of Julius Emspak (1906-1962), the leading figure in the dramatic rise of The United Electric Workers (UE) during the 1930s and 1940s. One of the largest of the CIO unions that changed the industrial landscape and with the largest percentage of women members, the UE had a powerful effect on the lives of hundreds of thousands of workers and their families. 

As a militant leftwing union, it also delivered votes for Franklin D. Roosevelt in several crucial elections. During the McCarthy era, the UE was persecuted rather than rewarded for these efforts, and Julius Emspak died young of a heart attack after being compelled repeatedly to give testimony at hostile Congressional hearings. Frank once said about his father: “I don’t think I’d be doing what I’ve been doing without his influence.” 

Frank took pride in his family’s immigrant origins. He recalled later in his 2023 memoir, Troublemaker: Saying No to Power, that his father’s family, Hungarian immigrants who settled in upstate New York at the dawn of the twentieth century, had been non-religious “freethinkers.” His mother’s family, Jewish socialists from Russia, arrived in the South. 

His mother, Stella Abrams, left for New York and became a leftwing labor activist. Julius Emspak won a scholarship for graduate school to Brown University and earned an M.A., but chose to join the labor movement rather than pursue academia. By the end of the 1930s, Frank’s mother had become office manager and secretary to Julius, who was leading a dramatically rising UE.

Thousands growing up during the McCarthy era, with the FBI at their family’s door, felt daunted, but not Frank. In Tuckahoe, New York, a blue-collar community in suburban Westchester County, he became a political activist in high school. He also met Dolores Fox, his future wife, who was attending a nearby school. 

Like many children of the New York left, Frank chose the University of Wisconsin–Madison for college and, while there, found a locus for his political blossoming. He joined the Madison left at the first opportunity, taking part in local civil rights organizing campaigns. He graduated with a  B.A. in 1967 and entered graduate school to study history. Frank easily moved into the rising anti-war activity of the middle 1960s—locally as well as nationally.

The Du Bois Clubs offered Frank a network of contacts around the country. He had earlier helped form the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. After huge demonstrations in the spring of 1967, this coalition collapsed due to a split between activists determined to keep working within the Democratic Party and those too embittered to continue on that path.

Frank rose—or, rather, fell—into a photo-op in October 1967, as Madison police smashed into a university building where several hundred peaceful protesters had been sitting-in, seeking to prevent a visit of recruiters from the Dow Chemical Company (best known for supplying napalm for use in Vietnam). One photo shows Frank among the protesters looking intently defiant as the clubs are about to descend upon student skulls. It’s an apt image. 

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Frank was amid generational peace efforts of all kinds. A year or two later, he co-organized a city-wide referendum on the Vietnam War, a project that narrowly failed in 1968 but succeeded in 1970. A year earlier, he was active in the student strike that led to the establishment of a Black Studies program at the university.

By 1971, ready to leave college life behind (he still had a dissertation to write on the UE and its 1949 expulsion from the CIO), Frank moved with Dolores to Paris. There, she worked on a dissertation while he organized the U.S. exile community, meeting quietly with representatives of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front and the French Communist Party. Two years later, they returned to the United States—Dolores to medical school, Frank to a shoe manufacturing plant, represented by the UE, and later to a giant and historic General Electric plant in Lynn, Massachusetts, long represented by the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE) that had swept up sections of the labor left. Meanwhile, Frank and Dolores raised two children, Jesse and Freya. 

Frank became a leader of a labor movement in Massachusetts that had been reduced by factory shutdowns. In Lynn, he challenged factory management and existing union leadership alike. He led the establishment of rank-and-file committees on issues ranging from health and safety to women’s rights and changes in technology. His descriptions of tactics and strategy in his memoir, Troublemaker, will remain valuable to readers within unions and outside of them.

Through his connections and his leadership in the IUE local in Lynn, Frank became a close, if informal, adviser to Governor Michael Dukakis, trying without success to help the 1988 Democratic Party presidential candidate avoid the traps that Republicans had set for him.

By 1992, Frank and Dolores returned to Madison. Dolores became an OB-GYN physician of note, and Frank joined the University of Wisconsin School for Workers, which is somewhat of an irony as it had been a fount of Cold War hostility to the left throughout the 1970s. By the time Frank joined the faculty, with the encouragement of the state AFL-CIO, the school was providing broad labor education to working people and unions. Frank became a favorite, proving that labor education continued to have an important role even as factories closed and union membership rolls declined. 

If unions were to survive, Frank believed, they had to develop a more public role. He soon became a regular guest on listener-sponsored radio station WORT as well as an informal adviser to local unions and the Madison Central Labor Council. By 1998, Frank set out an ambitious plan for labor information and education on the radio nationally and beyond. 

Frank and co-founder Ellen La Luzerne created a weekly labor radio program on WORT. It was a wide ranging, all-volunteer effort focused on the issues and concerns of working people. He continued to produce Madison Labor Radio until his final days, even after Ellen died of cancer in April 2023. Over the decades, the program has provided in-depth coverage of local labor issues and organizing in the Madison area, involving hundreds of volunteer readers and reporters, all of whom were active in their local union or community organizations.

For nearly fifteen years, Frank, Ellen, and others also regularly produced the Workers Independent News Service (WIN). Launched in February 2002 and continuing until November 2017, WIN broadcast on approximately seventy community and commercial radio stations and more widely on the Internet, ending only when the flagging AFL-CIO affiliates cut back their financial support. For two decades, Frank had also been a “talking head” on a handful of international news services, offering insights on U.S. strategies and popular resistance.

Frank’s work on “Labor Radio” in Madison, Wisconsin, was recognized with a Mayoral Proclamation on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the program on WORT-FM community radio. February 2, 2024 was officially proclaimed by Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes Conway as “Frank Emspak Day.” 

A memorial event is scheduled for July 1 at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin.

Paul Buhle is, most recently, coeditor of W.E.B. DuBois’s Souls of Black Folk: A Graphic Interpretation. He has been a historian of labor and of Madison, Wisconsin’s political traditions. He recently left Madison to return to Providence, Rhode Island

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