“You’re not the boss of me.” That’s what the email said – or at least the part of the email on which I was focused. Fairly new to the ILWU, I was a bit taken aback by this communication from Local 6 Secretary-Treasurer, Fred Pecker. I had interacted with Fred on a number of occasions by that point but did not know him well. And, while I was familiar with this saying, which was somewhat popular among folks of a certain age at the time, I couldn’t figure out what had elicited this response from him. Had I offended Fred in some way? I frantically looked at preceding email communications to see how something I’d said might have been misinterpreted but could find nothing.
When Fred called later that day to discuss whatever it was that we had been working on, he was friendly and everything seemed fine. At the end of the call he mentioned the “You’re not the boss of me” comment, noting that this was a retort his kids had recently taken to using with him. He thought it was funny and, I guess, he had given me credit for having a sense of humor. Mystery solved. I was relieved I hadn’t unknowingly upset him and realized, with Fred, things weren’t always necessarily as they seemed.
One might have assumed, for instance, that with his somewhat imposing stature, Fred could be intimidating to be around. But he wasn’t. He was soft-spoken and kind and a good listener. His long ponytail might have been misconstrued as a sign that he was a “hippy,” with a mindset stuck in the past. But that obviously was not the case; Fred was very much about the present and the future. He was always seeking to move his members forward to a place where they would enjoy better wages and working conditions and a better life in general; and, through his political activism, he sought to ensure that we had – or would elect – local leaders who would do right by working people.
I loved that Fred was amused when his kids said he wasn’t “the boss of them.” Fred’s sense of humor, including his ability to laugh at himself, was one of the things I appreciated most about him. It served him well in his role leading Local 6 for so many years and through so many challenges. I also appreciated Fred’s ability to continue hoping and fighting for a better future for the Local’s members, despite the many obstacles to organizing and the national trend of increasingly lower rates of union membership. He was incredibly hardworking and totally committed to serving his membership and the working class in general.
As the Local’s Secretary-Treasurer, a long-time Executive Board member of the ILWU International, and the head of the ILWU’s Northern CA District Council (the body that endorses local political candidates), Fred could have rested on his laurels and one might have assumed that he would be content doing so. But that assumption would be wrong as well. Despite his onerous official responsibilities, Fred seemed to be at every demonstration, every rally, every picket line – often with the bullhorn, leading the chants. No matter what the fight, he was on the scene and the ILWU was represented.
I worked most closely with Fred on the Campaign for Sustainable Recycling in Alameda County – an inspiring and successful campaign through which Local 6 helped set a wage standard for recycling sorters throughout the county. The campaign also was successful in organizing a group of recycling workers who had been working for a company as temps for years with extremely low pay an no benefits. With their first contract, these workers’ living standard and their lives improved significantly virtually overnight.
Fred worked tirelessly on this campaign and our ILWU team spent a lot of time together. As the leader of the Local, some might assume Fred would have put himself out front on the campaign. But he didn’t. He knew the workers were the best spokespersons for their courageous fight and always encouraged them to lead the way and speak for themselves. Many strong leaders developed through the Campaign for Sustainable Recycling.
Often Fred and I would drive together to meet with elected officials, workers, and allies. On our way, we’d discuss our approach to the meeting as music from Fred’s eclectic collection of cds played in the background – or perhaps foreground is more accurate. I rarely knew who the artist was, but Fred seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of genres and bands, and he was always happy to share it with me.
Frequently, after our meetings, we’d stop somewhere for lunch. A fellow vegetarian, Fred could be counted on for taking us somewhere that was friendly to non-meat-eaters. He liked a wide variety of foods and seemed always to know where to find the good places – the best Salvadoran place for pupusas, in San Leandro; a good Mexican spot in East Oakland; delicious Indian food in Fremont. He also introduced me to the fresh and enormous slabs of bread from the Afghan food stores in Fremont. We’d eat some right there in the car as we drove back – a generous supply lying in the backseat for his family to enjoy when he got home to San Francisco.
I was lucky to spend some non-working time with Fred, too – mainly during the Jewish holidays. After learning that my husband Matt also is Jewish, Fred often would invite us to celebrate Passover or Chanukah with him and Sue and their various family members and friends. It meant so much to Matt, who had no family in the Bay Area, to have the opportunity to mark these holidays at the Pecker-Solomon home. We both really appreciated the welcoming environment, the social justice themes they highlighted in the celebrations, and the delicious food. On one occasion at least, Fred spent what seemed like hours at the stove cooking the latkes.
I wish I had spent more time with Fred, but I’m grateful for the time I had to work with him and to get to know him. He was a unique and inspiring human being who helped many, many people and did a lot of good in the world. He’s left a large void – one which won’t readily be filled.