Today, National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García and Executive Director John Stocks each sent messages to NEA members and leaders honoring the life and legacy of labor organizer and social justice champion Paul Booth.
“I am deeply saddened by the passing of my teacher, mentor and friend Paul Booth,” said Stocks. “Paul was a tireless leader and organizer for social justice. He was a quiet giant who worked behind the scenes, who touched the lives of so many, who fought for working people not because of professional obligation but out of personal commitment, who sought to create change by building solidarity rather than burning bridges.”
“I came to know Paul Booth in the early1980’s after I trained as a young organizer at the Midwest Academy in Chicago, a vital institution of progressive infrastructure founded by Paul’s dear wife Heather, one of the few people in American history whose contributions to the betterment of our world compares to the work of Paul. While the list of movements Paul touched and brought together over the last 60 years is innumerable, perhaps his greatest contribution and the effort that will sustain his legacy is the work he and Heather have done to reach, teach, and inspire generation after generation of young people, workers, and organizers to move from spectator to participant in our democracy.
“We cannot begin to quantify the impact of Paul’s life, or the number of movements Paul not only touched, but brought together. The thread of ‘Build, Not Burn,’ that Paul coined during his earliest days as a peace activist was constant in his life. He recognized that nothing was more important for our lives and our work than to bring disparate organizations together for the common cause of fighting for equity, fairness, and justice.
“I am one of thousands of advocates, activists and organizers who would not be where I am today if not for Heather and Paul Booth. Words cannot express the depth of sorrow I feel today. As we mourn the loss of Paul, we will surround Heather and the AFSCME family with our assistance, our warmth, and our love.”
Paul Booth founded the Students for a Democratic Society chapter at his alma mater, Swarthmore College. He was instrumental in the creation of SDS’s Port Huron Statement, and ultimately rose to be that organization’s national Vice President. He led and organized the first march on Washington protesting the Vietnam War. He was instrumental in the creation, sustainment, and success of the Divestment Movement in South Africa and organized the first sit-in at Chase-Manhattan Bank that highlighted the bank’s role in supporting the pro-apartheid regime.
Paul was a contemporary and protégé of Saul Alinsky, with whom he worked to fight for social, economic, and environmental justice for urban communities. Paul helped organize and found one of the strongest labor locals in America, AFSCME Council 31, and helped secure the first union contract for 40,000 state workers and 7,000 city of Chicago employees.
He was an ally of Chicago’s first Black mayor, Harold Washington, and helped build a diverse, multi-racial coalition of working people that to this day is a positive force in the lives of workers and their families in Chicago and the state of Illinois. For decades at AFSCME, Paul was the leading strategist for organized labor, the Democratic Party, and the nationwide movement for workers’ rights and social justice. He brought together unions, including the NEA, that had long considered one another more rivals than partners to fight for our common goal of creating better lives for working people and a just society for all.
He led the creation of the most progressive platform in party history at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Even as a national leader he did the trench work of knocking doors, making calls and organizing voters to be more powerful than the sum of their individual efforts. Up until his final days, Booth continued his breakneck pace of movement work with his contributions to organizations like Jobs with Justice, Restaurant Opportunities Center United, and Midwest Academy.
“Working people have lost one of our greatest champions in Paul Booth,” said Eskelsen García. “No advancement for social justice in the last half a century of our immediate history is without Paul’s fingerprints. Much of it would not have been possible without him, a legacy that might be unmatched if not for the similarly overwhelming historic contribution of his partner in life Heather, who we are so sad for today. And through it all, Paul never sought recognition, honors, or spotlights. The lives of millions of people, in America and abroad, who have never heard his name are better today because we have been lucky enough to share this earth with Paul Booth.
“For all his notable achievements, there are hundreds, maybe thousands more movements and causes that Paul led, advised, or contributed to that made the lives of real people better. Paul will never receive and never would have asked for credit. But if you scratch the surface of any progressive change in the past 50 years, you will find the mark of Paul Booth.
“As Paul lived his final moments yesterday, he implored Heather to leave his side and join Jewish faith and political leaders in a protest for DREAMers at the US Capitol where she was ultimately arrested. That may seem exceptional, but in the lives of Paul and Heather, it is unremarkable. Standing for others without regard for themselves or their own convenience is simply what they have done for more than five decades. In his spirit, memory, and honor, the National Education Association and I will redouble our efforts to stand for DREAMers, build power for working people, fight for social and racial justice and continue to the best of our abilities the irreplaceable efforts of Paul Booth. Rest in power, Paul.”