The last member of the AFL-CIO Executive Council to have served during World War II passed away July 30.
Morton Bahr, president emeritus of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), was a shipboard radio operator during the war before he came ashore to begin a career that culminated in heading the union that dealt with telecommunications workers.
“Morty was a great friend and a true union man,” stated SIU President Michael Sacco. “He was proud of the fact that he served in the merchant marine during World War II. He was a man who embodied all the old virtues, most notably loyalty and commitment. Yet, he married those qualities to build a new vision of the future.”
Sacco said Bahr loved telling him why he stopped being a mariner. Bahr had married his girlfriend, Florence, during a shore leave in 1945. Both of them were teenagers. He returned to sailing and received a message at sea that he had become a father. Bahr wasn’t able to see his son for six weeks. When he did get home, he told Florence he was going to make one more voyage. Her response (taken from his autobiography “From the Telegraph to the Internet”): “Go ahead. But the baby and I won’t be here when you return.”
Bahr found a land-based job with McKay Radio and stayed with the American Communications Association, which he joined upon sailing. Following a 1948 strike that crippled the union, Bahr joined the CWA and became an organizer at McKay, which had become American Cable & Radio. By 1954, he was elected president of his New York local.
In 1957, he joined the CWA staff and was the lead organizer for the campaign that brought 24,000 plant workers of the New York Telephone Company into the union. Four years later, he was appointed the union’s New York director.
Bahr was elected District 1 vice president in 1963. His jurisdiction included New York, New Jersey and New England.
In 1985, Bahr became the third president in CWA’s history. He took over just after the breakup of the AT&T Bell System, which had employed a half-million union members. He served until his retirement in 2005. He also was a member of the Maritime Trades Department Executive Board during those 20 years.
Bahr and Florence remained together, and they raised two children.
CWA President Chris Shelton stated, “Not only CWA members, but the entire labor movement, lost a giant. Morty was comfortable whether he was in the company of presidents of the United States, in the halls of Congress, or on a picket line. He was not only a great president but he was a members’ president. Morty loved fighting alongside members in organizing drives and on the picket line almost more than anything that he did as president of this union. He will be sorely missed.”