Labor activist remembered

Elinor Glenn, a prolific union organizer, was not afraid of making bold changes, whether it was in her pursuit of women’s equality in the workplace or Passover dinners.
August 28, 2013

Elinor Glenn, a prolific union organizer, was not afraid of making bold changes, whether it was in her pursuit of women’s equality in the workplace or Passover dinners. 

“We used to be at a Passover seder, and someone would read, ‘And then God did this, and then He did this and that.’ And Ellie would read, “And then God did this, and then She did this and that,” said Richmond Shepard speaking at a memorial service for his late aunt on Aug. 18 in a large auditorium at Professional Musicians Local 47 in Hollywood.

Glenn died peacefully in her sleep on April 24 at the age of 98, according to her family. She helped found the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) in 1974, and served as its West Coast vice president from 1974 to 1975. In a video interview shown at her memorial, which was attended by about 150 people, Glenn said that her family lived by the values of tzedakah, or righteousness. 

“I was surrounded by a morality which said … that you join organizations and you help other people.” 

Glenn was born in 1915 in Brooklyn. Her parents were progressives who supported the union movement, according to an obituary and tribute from CLUW. She moved to Hollywood in 1944, pursuing acting by night while working a day job in the Office of Price Administration, which controlled money and rent after World War II. She would be fired from the office three times for her organizing activities.

Glenn decided to change the focus of her life when she witnessed a stage actor portraying a scab, or strikebreaker, thrown out of the hall by steel workers in the audience, despite protests from the acting troupe. 

“We don’t care who he is, he’s a goddamn scab and he ain’t sitting in here!” Glenn, speaking in the memorial video, remembered the workers responding. “My real passion … was on the other side, where the steel workers were sitting. And at that moment I wanted to become a union organizer and intended to become a union organizer.”

She initially volunteered with the National Federation of Federal Employees Local. Finding paid positions and promotions within the labor movement was difficult because of her gender; many people did not believe she had the power to stand up to industry bosses or inspire workers to follow her. After probationary periods to prove her capabilities, she attained a number of titles — steward, chief steward and ultimately president, when a merger changed her union to the United Public Workers, Local 246.

Glenn spent much of her career working with Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents health care workers; property services workers, such as janitors; and public employees, such as local and state government workers. Eventually she became the first female general manager of an SEIU local. 

With SEIU Local 434 in Los Angeles, Glenn led the first strike of county workers to protect wages and seniority rights, according to the SEIU. And the video played at her memorial indicated that she succeeded in achieving three wage increases and a collective bargaining law for hospital workers. Glenn increased Local 434’s membership tenfold to 7,000 members. Local 434 now represents 180,000 long-term care workers as SEIU United Long Term Care Workers.

Family, friends and colleagues of Elinor Glenn gather in the lobby of the Professional Musicians Local 47 to celebrate the life of the late union leader. Photo by Lisa Weingarten

Glenn also worked extensively with the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC). In 1998, she received an advocacy award from the organization, and it established an award in her honor in 2011, the Elinor Glenn Leadership Award.

Los Angeles City Councilman Gilbert Cedillo said at the memorial that Glenn and those she worked with deserve plenty of credit.

“[Elinor] … and this generation of people fighting to create the same rights to organize as a private sector … they were the first contracts … no precedent, nothing to look back at, nobody to ask,” he said.  

Glenn profoundly touched a number of people, both personally and professionally, according to those who spoke. 

Mary Kay Henry, the current international president of SEIU — and its first female leader — said in a video tribute to Glenn that the latter called her shortly after she first started working for SEIU to say, “You don’t know me, but you have to promise me that you will never quit this job unless you call me. I have fought too hard to get women in these positions, and so you’re going to stick it out no matter what. And I [will] help you succeed.”

Elizabeth Stanley got to know Glenn while setting up job training programs for SEIU. Shortly after her hiring, Glenn took Stanley aside and told her that she had great ideas, but that she was letting men restate and take credit for them. 

“You end your sentences with a question,” Stanley remembered Glenn telling her. “End them with a period, so it sounds like you are sure about what you’re saying.” 

Glenn encouraged Stanley to think of herself as her own lawyer, or her own union representative.

“You’re so good at representing other people, but you’re not so good at representing yourself,” Stanley said Glenn told her. 

And when Stanley was an expectant mother, Glenn helped Stanley not feel intimidated by union bosses with whom she had to deal. 

“Back in 1982, being unwed and pregnant isn’t great. It wasn’t horrible, but it isn’t great,” Stanley said. “Elinor was just really incredibly helpful in both helping me fulfill my potential and … helping me navigate what was a very challenging and difficult situation.” 

Brianna Shepard, Glenn’s great-niece, considered Glenn a grandmother. She described Glenn as a rare woman who could be very feminine, then walk into a boardroom and “curse like a sailor and get stuff done.” 

According to Brianna Shepard, Glenn lived her values in her personal as well as her public life. She and her husband, Hack Glenn — married five weeks after their first date — maintained a deep love and respect for one another, sharing in the cooking duties and in raising their son, Brianna Shepard said. 

In the memorial video, Glenn’s son, the late Norman Gleichman, said Hack Glenn would nominate his wife for the “Women of the Year” feature in the Los Angeles Times every year. And Brianna Shepard said Elinor Glenn told her that, at 80, her heart still went “pitter patter” when she heard the keys in the lock, signaling her husband’s return home. 

As the showing at her memorial makes clear, Glenn’s legacy will live on through the scores of people she mentored and influenced. As Brianna Shepard said, “She gave you the confidence to do what you felt was right, and to fight for yourself.”

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