Paul Schrade, once a top aide to UAW leader Walter Reuther and a former leader of the United Auto Workers on the West Coast, who was gravely wounded when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, has died at 97 at his home in Los Angeles.
His death was reported by the Los Angeles Times.
“He embodied the spirit of the UAW at its best,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Activist to the end
In recent years, Schrade, who often found himself at odds with the UAW’s established leadership even before Reuther’s death in 1970, helped campaign for reform in the UAW, making a video in support of the “One-member, One-vote campaign,” noted Michael Cannon, a retired member of the UAW’s professional staff involved in the reform effort, launched after the UAW was engulfed in scandal.
Cannon added Schrade, a committed activist throughout his life, continued his involvement this year, offering counsel to reform candidates, challenging the UAW’s entrenched leadership in the first-ever elections this fall to fill the union’s top offices, including the union presidency.
But Schrade’s role in UAW history and his activist philosophy was largely overlooked by the union as the UAW has struggled to maintain its influence both at the bargaining table and in politics.
According to historian Nelson Lichtenstein, Reuther, who had an eye for talent, first recruited Schrade to serve on his staff because the “bright young radical” union activist had already made his mark among UAW’s local officers in Southern California booming aerospace industry of the late 1940s and early 1950s.
After serving an aide to Reuther, Schrade returned to California marked as Reuther’s protégé. He was elected to the UAW’s executive board as director of the union’s western region, which was dominated by the heavily unionized aerospace industry.
During the 1960s, Schrade served as Reuther’s unofficial ambassador to the farm workers and anti-war movement on the West Coast. In 1968 he was shot in the kitchen of the Los Angles Ambassador Hotel while walking next to Robert F. Kennedy, who had just won California’s all-important Presidential Primary.
The coalitions Schrade, as the UAW’s regional director, built in California were critical in Kennedy’s victory and in the earlier Indiana primary where Kennedy had built an alliance between blue-collar workers and minority groups.
“I remember watching the votes come in from the barrio in East LA and I knew we had won,” said Schrade, who had argued with Reuther about supporting Kennedy. At the time, Reuther was reluctant to break with President Lyndon Johnson.
Schrade was close to the Kennedy family, having met both JFK and RFK during the 1956 convention when the Kennedys sought Reuther’s support for Democratic vice-presidential nomination on a ticket with Adlai Stevenson. Schrade recalled in another interview Reuther told JFK that he had to do “more for labor.”
History suggests Kennedy followed Reuther’s advice as his record became more friendly towards labor during the next four years in the run up to his nomination and run for President in 1960.
Schrade recalled the UAW’s executive board was divided with about one third supporting Robert Kennedy, another third supporting Johnson and the final third waiting for Reuther to decide. He also said did not believe Sirhan Sirhan did not shoot Robert Kenned in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel.
“Sirhan’s first shot missed Kennedy. His second hit me,” said Schrade during one telephone interview. “I have two holes in my head. Fortunately, I still have hair.”
Sirhan was then grabbed by one Kennedy’s escorts who slammed him into a steel kitchen table. Sirhan’s pistol continued to fire, hitting four other people. “He was out of position and out of bullets,” added Schrade, noting an autopsy indicated Kennedy was shot from behind, pointing to presence of a second gunman.
“I consider myself a public prosecutor. I’m not interested in conspiracy theories. I’m just looking at the evidence,” said Schrade in an interview of his complaints about the investigation into RFK’s death. He also helped produce films and articles about the holes in the narrative around RFK’s assassination.
Ultimately, the argument over the Vietnam War alienated other UAW officers, notably Reuther’s successor Leonard Woodcock and cost Schrade his seat on the union executive board in 1972.
However, While Schrade’s role in paving the way for the alliances beyond the industrial Midwest has been ignored by the later day UAW, it was kept alive by union activists and by historians such as Lichtenstein, the author of a biography of Reuther and his era, “The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit.”
Schrade nurtured community organizations in Watts and East Los Angeles and supported the United Farm Workers, igniting forces, which ultimately re-shaped politics and culture in the State of California.
“But he was never again invited to a UAW Convention,” Cannon said. “We had hoped we could change that.”
During the 1980s, Schrade served as an unofficial adviser to Jerry Tucker, another dissident member of the UAW executive board member and leader of New Directions, which called for reform of the union. Tucker, who died in 2012, was a leader of what “Labor Notes” described as the “troublemaking wing” of the UAW.
He warned the joint programs the union launched in the 1980s to foster what was described as labor and management’s cooperation could and would dilute the UAW’s identity and corrupt the union — a prediction borne out by the federal investigation of joint funds at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, now Stellantis, and the criminal convictions of two recent UAW presidents, Gary Jones and Dennis Williams.
Schrade was involved in efforts to create a public school on the site of the Ambassador Hotel, which was purchased in 1989 by a partnership linked Donald Schrade. It was deeply involved in years of legal battles, which ended with the Los Angeles Unified School District acquiring the site, which became the campus of the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools. The library there is named for Schrade.
“Paul Schrade was a fierce warrior for humanity and justice,” school board member Mónica García said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times.