So Long, Ron! A Farewell to Ron Blackwell, “Common Sense” Economist for the Labor Movement

“No doubt this attack on democracy reflected the rise of a wealthy minority…which called itself the Oligarchical Party, and denounced democracy as an incompetent sham.” This passage, from back in the day, might have been a tongue-in-cheek quote from Mark Twain about the raw, wild west violence of the robber barons of the Gilded Age, or maybe by Thorsten Veblen, the author who wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class and coined the term “conspicuous consumption,” about the rigged greed of the Roaring ‘20s.

Wrong. It was actually a quote from a book by philosopher Will Durant, who was writing about the counter-attack on the democracy at the time, several hundred years BC, in Athens, during the time of Socrates. Many Americans, including silver-haired business lions, feel we are returning to the Gilded Age and Roaring ‘20s, when financial and corporate barons ruthlessly worked to destroy their competition and remove the early vestiges of labor unions and business regulation.

Today, we face the specter that the super rich and its friends in the gilded halls of power are doing their best to curb voting, kill unions (and the freedom of association), destroy our ability to make things, and, with the recent tax bill and bludgeon-like attacks on the Dodd-Frank bill, monopolize the marketplace beyond recognition. If we lose this fight, the machine-like growth of income inequality and economic unfairness, so factually and painfully rendered in French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital magnum opus, will surely splurge.

It is with these thoughts in mind that we mourn the recent passing of Ron Blackwell, who, most recently, served as the Chief Economist of the AFL-CIO. Ron had a deep understanding of how current oligarchies have betrayed the country, and he had a progressive populist view that we--the 99%--need to fight back. Ron would still be raging about the wars on working people and the resultant demolition derby that has been rolling across our land, hurting people and communities.

That is why we wanted to dedicate this issue of the Expresso to Ron. Along with a thoughtful memoriam written by Jeff Faux, former President of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), we wanted to post two other features that Ron might have enjoyed. One is the new Heartland Mini-Book, Responsible Investment (RI) and the Labor Movement: A Love Story. This colorful document recounts the incredible history of working people and Labor’s pioneering role in investing in people and communities, going back almost 170 years. The second is a new policy paper on pension fund investment in infrastructure by the Committee on Workers’ Capital (CWC). With over 400 participants from 25 different countries, the Committee on Workers’ Capital (CWC) is an international labour union network for dialogue and action on the responsible investment of workers capital.

During his years at ACTWU (the former clothing and textile workers’ union), Ron and Bill Patterson established the LongView Funds, through Amalgamated Bank, which, for over 25 years have taken an activist approach to investing with ESG criteria. At the Federation, Ron helped design and helm the corporate affairs department, and helped launch the Office of Investment and “Common Sense Economics.” In that capacity, he was also a founder of the global CWC.

I interviewed Ron for our Responsible Investor Handbook. As we said in the book, over the years, global labor leaders and capital stewards increasingly recognized the importance of coordinated activist engagements and investment collaboration. This led to the establishment of global labor networks that coordinate shareholder and political actions and provide mutual support. At the request of the Global Trade Unions and the AFL-CIO, the Dutch Federation of Trade Unions (FNV) organized a conference in 1998 at which the FNV presented the union policy on responsible investment and laid the foundation for the establishment of the Committee on Workers’ Capital (CWC). From the book:

The final plans for the CWC were designed in a meeting at the Capitol Hill Restaurant in Washington, D.C. between AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Bertil Jonsson, Executive President of the Swedish Trade Union Confederation.

“American workers had a voice in over $6 billion in pension funds at the time,” explained Ron Blackwell, former Chief Economist of the AFL-CIO. “Globally, the labor movement had a voice in over $13 billion. We needed to organize Workers’ Capital to demand a strategy for responsible shareholder action and real investment, in ways that were in the interests of working people.”

The CWC was launched by the Executive Board of the then International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), following a November 1999 conference in Stockholm of trade union leaders from ICFTU affiliates, national union federations, and TUAC (the Trade Union Action Committee to the OECD). As an arm (today) of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the CWC brings together representatives of the international labor movement to share information and develop strategies for joint actions. These national and international labor centers have advanced some of the most ambitious and aggressive corporate responsibility campaigns to date, including shareholder actions against companies working in Burma, which sanctioned slave labor, and against the multinational mining company Rio Tinto for massive labor abuses in the global South.

Creative capital stewards across countries have pushed the envelope by voting their shares in hundreds of companies, targeting a multitude of corporate issues and increasing the integration of ESG into their pension and institutional investments. They have invested in common pools of capital the global responsible investment movement and the launch of the UN PRI across borders and globally with a focus on areas such as housing and infrastructure, clean energy, and climate change.

Today, workers’ capital has grown to $41.3 trillion in pension and other institutional funds. In the US that number is $25.4 trillion, and there are $10+ trillion in defined benefit funds. Unions and working people have a voice in many of these funds, as union representatives and employees are Directors of Pension Trust Boards. So, Ron’s initial inclination was spot-on.

Last, as a country economist, so to speak, from Alabama, Ron related to those of us who were part of the plant closure and unemployment movements in the 1980s and ‘90s. While at ACTWU, he and his union were a pivotal co-sponsor for the 1989 Industrial Renaissance Conference, along with our friends at the Steelworkers and our national network. Ron was there, and he spoke at that event, one of the first stabs at presenting a national, sustainable industrial policy from the ground up. If you’ve followed the smart economic policy papers coming out of the Century Foundation “High Wage America” coalition and our ongoing Heartland Cities Tour, you’ll see that original, path-breaking Renaissance Conference outline. After moving to the Federation, Ron whole-heartedly supported the break out of the Heartland Labor/Capital Network in the mid-1990s. He supported alternative economic strategies and campaigns to the hilt. Ron wanted to understand what worked, and he lent his name to our many-faceted, mutual struggles to take back America.

In these times, we face a dangerous new Oligarchical Party. When we fight back—for our jobs and dignity, for our families and communities—we are following the proud legacy of Ron Blackwell. He was a warrior for workers, as Bill Patterson told me. We are eternally grateful for the wit, wisdom and work of Ron Blackwell.

Tom Croft

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