The Workers’ Warrior

A Lifetime Activist Gets the SpotlightMusical Lives, Musical Stories

Volume CVI, No. 7/8July, 2006

Mikael Elsila

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How do you sum up a life of 89 years – especially a life as rich as activist Julius Margolin? It’s almost an impossible task, but a new film about Margolin is up to it. “A Union Man: The Life and Work of Julius Margolin,” a movie by Margolin’s musical partner George Mann, gives us a close look at a man who says that when he grows up he wants to be a “seasoned veteran who knows a lot more than I know today.”

An honorary lifetime member of Local 802, Margolin can be seen frequently around the building or at his own union, IATSE Local 52, next door. He is also visible at virtually every major protest in the city. At just over five feet tall, with his glasses and Merchant Marines Veteran baseball hat, he is striking. And so is his commitment to organizing.

In the film, Margolin says his own mission throughout the years has been “fighting against the ruling class that is trying to keep the working class down.”

But singing and writing songs is a more recent endeavor. “I never thought I had the ability. I make some mistakes.” Why perform in the first place? As Margolin points out, “Sometimes culture can do a better job of organizing than a long-winded speech.”

Plenty of concert footage and interviews spice up the movie, including a cameo by famed storyteller Utah Phillips. “A long memory is the most radical idea in America…Julius is very much a part of that long memory,” Phillips says.

Margolin is a former merchant seaman and longshoreman. Joe Stack, a former vice president of the National Maritime Union, says in the film, “The most important things I remember about Julius are so many participations in different picket lines…whenever there was a picket line I went to, I knew I could find Julius.”

Margolin also worked as a film electrician. In his day, he worked on major films such as “Twelve Angry Men,” “The Hustler,” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

Even though he’s retired now, he’s still “very active and still takes an active role,” says John Ford, president of IATSE Local 52, the union that represents film technicians. “He’s very consistent. Every day he’s here. If you ask him to do something – whatever needs to get done, it’ll get done.”

Margolin has been one of the local’s delegates to the Central Labor Council for 33 years. He is the oldest delegate to the CLC.

Born and raised in New York City and New Jersey, he was a member of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and organized for the CIO during the 1930’s and 1940’s.

Margolin is typically modest about the movie. He thinks the real point of it is not to show off his own life.

“The reason I agreed to do the film is because I wanted to get the history of the struggles of the labor movement,” Margolin told Allegro. “I wanted to get across that we have to work with labor movements in other countries to fight international big business and capital. That’s a big part of labor struggles that you don’t hear about. We’re taking a beating all round and we have to learn how to fight back.”

Margolin’s musical partner, George Mann, is a 40-something singer-songwriter and union organizer who teamed up with Margolin several years ago to form the act “Young and Younger.” The duo has three albums and two compilations to their name.

Margolin himself writes many of the duo’s songs. In his honest, gravelly voice, he tells it like it is, with such titles as “We’re AFL-CIO”, “Enron, Worldcom, Bush Corporate Thieves,” “Come and Join the Union,” “We are the Working Class,” and “Don’t Let Age Get You Down.”

The lyrics are plain, progressive and always political.

“A simple, organizing, working-class song,” is how he describes “Come and Join the Union,” one of his tunes. Woody Guthrie would approve.

Margolin and Mann met in 1996 at the Great Labor Arts Exchange, an annual conference on creative organizing. Margolin was just beginning to write songs, although he was already a member a of the New York City Labor Chorus.

When they returned to new work, they found out they were neighbors in a sense: Mann worked in the Organizing Department at Local 802 at the time, which is next door to IATSE Local 52, Margolin’s union.

Mann joined the labor chorus and soon became musical buddies with Margolin.

Two years later, Margolin fell ill. Doctors discovered he had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This was on top of the leukemia that he already knew about – but was not succumbing to.

Around that time, Mann proposed a musical collaboration.

“In my mind it was as much to give Julius something to shoot for as to get out some labor folk music, and I thought the combination of two guys 45 years apart in age would be fun,” Mann told Allegro. “Also, his political outlook was so sharp I thought his bluntness would be great onstage, as he is not just a sweet old man but a World War II vet, war protester and blacklist survivor.”

That was eight years ago. Now the two perform 100 gigs a year in addition to producing CD’s. This July, they’ll be on tour in Washington and Oregon, and in the fall they’ll be gigging from California to Colorado.

“We also sing for veterans and nursing homes,” Mann said. “I think that’s important because Julius sees it as part of his work, since he’s healthy enough to get around.”

Margolin lives in Manhattan and enjoys his reading, songwriting and adding to his extensive book and video collection. In the summer of 2000, he spent two weeks in Northern Ireland as part of a trade union observer delegation in the areas around Belfast subject to continuing strife.

Margolin will be 90 in August. “I don’t feel old. I keep active. I don’t let things worry me or deteriorate,” he says in the film. “I’m a lot more active than I’ve been in my whole life trying to make a better world.”

As his own lyrics say:

Don’t let age get you down.
You’re never too old to get around.
The outlook on life we have is key.
So I don’t let old age worry me.

The film will be screened on Aug. 11 at 7:30 p.m. in the Local 802 Club Room. Admission is by donation and the screening will be a benefit for Bread and Roses, the cultural wing of 1199 SEIU, the service workers’ union.

Local 802’s Renee Russell was the principal videographer on the film.

To order DVD’s of the movie, and for more information about Mann, Margolin and their music, see