One of the cool things about working for a magazine like Jewish Currents is that for the editors and readers of Currents, radical Jewish history isn’t just history, it’s a part of their lives. The editorial board of Currents is still run as a collective (of which I’m now a member), and the magazine has always been a vehicle for the voices of its readers, rather than a platform for the editorial board. If we covered labor and union issues, it was because a great part of our readership was union members- teachers, civil servants, wall paper hangers as well as union organizers and labor agitators.
Henry Foner fits into many of those aforementioned categories. He’s been a high school teacher, union organizer (Joint Board, Fur, Leather and Machine Workers Union), Jewish Currents editorial board member and writer, as well as a victim of the New York State communist purges of the early 1940s.
Tomorrow, Wednesday, June 11, at 6 pm, Henry Foner will be honored for his decades of service, as well as his achievements as a songwriter and bard of the organized labor world. Taking place at the Workmen’s Circle (45 East 33rd St) we will also be celebrating a new exhibit on the Labor Arts website called “Play it Again, Sam”: The Lost Chords of the Labor and Progressive Movements.
Henry Foner and his colleagues young and old will be performing songs like “Shoot the Strudel to me Yudel”, “Capitalist Boss” and “Song of the Pennies and Selling Union.”
Here’s a wonderful bio of Henry from Tamiment Library, after the jump

Henry J. Foner (1919- ), longtime activist leader of the Joint Board, Fur, Leather and Machine Workers Union (FLM), grew up in New York, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. His father had a seltzer delivery route, and later owned a garage. In high school, Foner started playing saxophone with a band at hotels in the Catskills. He also started composing comic verses, played to the tunes of popular songs. By the late 1930s, Foner had acquired an interest in history and politics from his older brothers, Moe, Philip and Jack, and began developing the commitment to progressive activism that would shape his life. After graduating from City College with a degree in Business Administration in 1939, Foner organized “Student Caravans for America,” which sent groups around the country to perform puppet shows promoting an anti-war message. The puppets were made by Pete Seeger. Foner’s own group had their puppets and stage destroyed by a group of vandals in Bristol, VT and had to be rescued by the local sheriff.
In 1940, Foner’s three brothers were all working at City College when the Rapp-Coudert Legislative Committee-investigating Communism in New York public schools and colleges, and employing tactics that later became a template for the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations-suspended them, along with fifty other employees of New York City colleges.
At the time, Henry, who had received his substitute-teaching license in stenography and typewriting, was teaching at Samuel J. Tilden High School in Brooklyn. He had already passed all parts of the regular examination, but he was not granted that license because of an “insufficiently meritorious record” after he, too, had been questioned by the committee, and he initiated an appeal from that decision to the New York State Commissioner of Education. Meanwhile, together with two of his brothers, he helped form “The Foner Orchestra and their Suspended Swing” in mock homage to their experience, and during the summer of 1941, they played at Arrowhead Lodge in Ellenville, New York, where the post of staff comic was filled by Sam Levenson, a friend of the family who, at that time, was teaching with Henry at Tilden High School.
In the summer of 1942, Foner was drafted into the Army and assigned to the 88th Infantry Division in Camp Gruber, Oklahoma, where he rose to the rank of warrant officer. After his division entered combat in Italy, he was awarded the Legion of Merit, the Italian Military Valor Cross, “for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services.” Upon returning from service in 1946, he resumed teaching, this time at Prospect Heights High School in Brooklyn, while awaiting the outcome of his appeal to the State Commissioner. During the summers of 1946, 1947, and 1948, he and his brother Jack were part of the orchestra at Arrowhead Lodge, which became the official resort of the Jefferson School of Social Science, whose faculty was made up largely of victims of the Rapp-Coudert Committee, joined by other scholars. During the summer of 1947, he met his wife; Lorraine Lieberman and they were married in March 1948.
In 1947, together with Norman Franklin, Foner co-authored a musical, “Thursdays Till Nine” that was sponsored by the Department Store Employees Union and performed by its members — the first labor musical since “Pins and Needles,” written a decade earlier for the International Ladies’ Garment Worker’s Union by Harold Rome. Immediately after returning from his summer employment at Arrowhead Lodge in 1948, Foner was informed that his appeal to the State Commissioner had been denied and his substitute license was withdrawn. At the time, his brother, Philip, had been writing what was to become the history of the fur and leather workers’ union, and he introduced Henry to the leaders of the union, as a result of which he was hired as Educational and Welfare Director of the Joint Board Fur Dressers’ and Dryers’ Unions. In 1961, after the death of Joint Board President Sam Burt, Foner was elected president of the union and served in that capacity until his retirement in 1988. During his 27 years in the leadership of the Joint Board, he not only represented the union’s members in contract negotiations in a union that covered workers in the fur, leather, and machine industries in the states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and West Virginia, but he helped involve that union in a wide range of social issues, including the struggle for civil rights, helping to mobilize other unions in opposition to the war in Vietnam and joining in the early efforts to achieve universal healthcare coverage. He also established and edited the union’s newspaper, FLM Joint Board TEMPO, which, for ten successive years, won the first prize for “general excellence” in the competitions sponsored by the International Labor Press Association. In addition to his union work, Foner also served as a vice-chairman of the New York State Liberal Party, as chair of the party’s Labor Committee, as a member of governor Mario Cuomo’s Committee on labor practices and as a member of New York City Mayor John Lindsay’s Committee of the Judiciary. After the fur industry was attacked by animal rights activists, Foner served on the board of Wildlife Legislative Fund of America and authored a weekly column, “Conservation, Legislation and You” for the trade newspaper, Fur Age Weekly.
After retiring from the union in 1988, Foner helped create the Fur Design Department at the fashion Institute of technology (FIT) and served for two years as its chair. He also taught classes in labor history at the Harry Van Arsdale School for Labor Studies, the City College Center for Worker Education and the Brooklyn College Institute for Retirees in Pursuit of Education (IRPE). He also joined the Editorial Board of Jewish Currents magazine and for three years wrote its column, “It Happened in Israel.” He was vice-president of the Brooklyn Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra; treasurer (and later president) of the Paul Robeson Foundation; and a member of the Executive Committee of the New York Labor History Association, whose newsletter, Work History News, he continues to edit. In 2000, he privately published a booklet of his poems and songs, For Better or Verse. The same year, together with labor historian Rachel Bernstein and later joined by Evelyn Jones Rich, he helped found the website Labor Arts (www.laborarts.org) sponsored by the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, NYU, and 1199/SEIU’s Bread and Roses cultural program.
Foner and his three brothers were all involved in issues involving labor and radical history. The twins, Philip and Jack, had distinguished careers as historians after their exit from City College in 1940-Philip at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and Jack at Colby College in Maine. Moe was executive secretary of Local 1199 during its dramatic organizational campaigns in the hospitals of New York City and beyond and later went on to found the Bread and Roses cultural program. In the next generation, Jack’s son, Eric, has distinguished himself, as a professor of history at Columbia University and Moe’s daughter, Nancy, is currently a professor of sociology at Hunter College. In 1985, the four brothers received the Tom Paine award from the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee for their actions in defense of civil right and civil liberties. Fourteen years late- in 1999- they received the Distinguished Labor Communicators’ Award from the Metro Labor Press Association. In 2003, Foner received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Jews for Radical and Economic Justice (JFREJ). His wife of 54 years, Lorraine Lieberman Foner, who had received a Special Baccalaureate Degree from Brooklyn College, worked as a social worker at Brookdale hospital in Brooklyn until her retirement in 1988, died of complications of a brain tumor.
The evening will be co-sponsored by Jewish Currents, the Workmen’s Circle, Labor Arts, and the Bread and Roses Cultural Program of 1199/SEIU. Entrance is free, but we’re asking attendees to contribute to Labor Arts.