A Memory of Jim Cummings

Jim Cummings, former Executive Director of the Worker Center of the King County Labor Council, and the Calumet Project, passed away on April 28th, from complications from an amputation and long-suffered effects of diabetes. In some of my conversations with some of our mutual buddies, this much became clear as we talked about Jim Cummings: Jim was a hell of a guy, an exceptional and loyal friend, and a tremendous fighter for people from all walks of life who may have fallen on hard times. And we know that Jim cherished his family, and the gift that becoming a father brought.

For me, Jim was truly the older brother I never had. Because he had ploughed the ground in front of me, he both helped set me on my path, and made my path easier. Jim was someone who always seemed to put the concerns of my life and my family above his, even after, as we all know, he faced what seemed like an eternity of pain and suffering.

I wrote this for the memorial, which I couldn’t attend. Tom Lewiston, a shipyard worker who, as a former staffmember with Jim and I at the Worker Center continued the fight against the Lockheed Shipyards lockout of 900 workers, read it during the reception.

The Redwoods Days

I met Jim a few years after moving out west from the south, having migrated to a little town called Eureka, California, a quiet-looking place in the northwest of the state, close to Oregon, stuck between the rocky cliffs of the sea and the redwoods. The Northcoast of the 1970s was like the Barbary Coast, an outpost of hippies and earth children that had fled the Bay Area and other parts, complete with rough bars on the waterfront full of boisterous fishermen and loggers, vegetarian health bars for the ecotopians, as we called them, and newly opening fern bars and coffee shops catering to the hip professionals who had moved in.

The craziest of them had moved “back to the earth”, in communes or in trailers, vans and tents. Many lived in the large Victorian houses that graced the region, or the many small cottages. They started growing some of the best marijuana on the planet.

Jim had co-launched a legal services program at the Open Door Clinic, a health clinic and incubator of many innovative initiatives in Arcata, the college town in Humboldt County. Jim was the co-founder of Redwood Legal Services, an organization that was one of the last in the country to be run by paralegals.

I first met Jim just prior to being hired at RLA, by then a bustling organization with several lawyers, paralegals and support staff, housed in a re-habbed building in Eureka’s waterfront old town. I was hired as a paralegal, my first break into a more professional life. I came to know and befriend Jim at RLA.

Jimbo, as I sometimes called him, was a sometimes mercurial soul and methodical mind living in a tall, lanky, slow and often awkward body. While normally easy-going and often displaying a caustic, joking manner, Jim could get hot, but it would be a slow boil.

As a dyed-in-the-wool Irish-American, Jim, having grown up in and become a reporter in the LA area, worked as a journalist in Ireland during the early 1970s for a period of time. He always maintained that keen ability of all good reporters to detect bullshit.

Besides the normal course of addressing the legal crises of people, whether disability, unemployment, marital problems and violence, housing issues, etc., we often took on, through class-actions and public campaigns, the slum-lords, powers-that-be, and neanderthal bureaucrats that were, then, running the government of the county.

The region was quickly slipping into a severe recession in the late 1970s, throwing thousands out of work from the lumber and fishing industries. Jim connected us to a statewide network of progressive legal services groups and support organizations that made some pretty big waves in those days, waging innovative multi-forum campaigns that were often victorious on behalf of our clients or some critical social issue.

I will never forget the client case review meetings at RLA, with 8-10 lawyers and paralegals held around a long table in the conference room, with all of us presenting our cases, and trying to come to resolutions. I remember one day that John Cumming would be trying to professionally present a legal issue. Nancy Studhalter, a great woman who could drink a fisherman and anyone else, under the table, and a fellow para like myself, would stand on her head sometimes during the meetings because, she said, it helped with blood flow to the head, and therefore, allowed her to concentrate better during the meetings. And, she felt it would help get in touch with her ghost ovaries, ovaries she said had mysteriously grown back after a surgical procedure.

All of a sudden Jim, bursting with frustration, climbed up on the long table, pacing back and forth, waving his arms, his voice moving from a slow introduction to his way of thinking, into a long staccato of reasoned attacks on both the faulty conclusions to that point and against the unfair forces arrayed against our clients. I would sit in my chair and, eventually like the rest, break into hysterical laughter at the absolute ridiculousness of Jim’s actions, but also his brilliance, whether or not we agreed.

Later, a new lawyer came to town to run the organization, partly as a result of rules imposed by the Reagan Administration. David Lowe was an extremely effective trial lawyer, an older pro and loud courtroom presence, who had been a prosecutor in one of the U.S. protectorates in the Pacific Islands, an equally rough place. David and Jim didn’t exactly get along. One day, many, many weeks later, Jim brought a bottle of Johnny Walker to David’s office, and said, alright, clear a desk, we are going to drink this bottle and arm-wrestle until we get a few things straight. They arm-wrestled for hours.

Jim had an undying dedication to the cause of justice for poor people, and despite all the antics, RLA was an extremely effective organization, and it grew to four counties, serving people from inner city settings, to poor mountain towns, to the reservations. Despite the various forms of stress relief, often necessary due to the fact that many of us were carrying over 100 cases, RLA was a family, one that I remember fondly and still miss today. I think Nancy once called us the MASH unit of legal services.

Redwood sponsored me as I helped set up the first center for dislocated lumber workers in the west, with Jim acting as my constant advisor, even though he had moved on to the California Federation for Community Development in Sacramento.

The Early Seattle Days

When Jim was still working at the California Federation, he continued assisting me in conceptualizing the creation of the Seattle Worker Center. Later Jim moved to Connecticut and was a senior manager of a program to employ seniors. On one of my trips to New York for the FIRR sessions, I took a train up from NYC to Bridgeport to convince him to consider moving back to the west coast, to manage a new re-employment program funded by the State of Washington as a result of a statewide labor and church campaign that put the Center on the map. That’s where he met Katie. I remember he lived in a tiny apartment, his only entertainment a small radio. Jim was sometimes frugal and self-sacrificing, as most of you know.

After much deliberation, Jim agreed to the move and job. He came to Seattle, Katie later joining him, to become the director of the re-employment center of the SWC. Jim beefed up the re-employment center, and gave it structure and mission, and became a constant irritant or ally to the city, county and state fathers, depending on their willingness to cooperate, linking the center to the employment and training policy frameworks of the region.

Jim loved the original close-to-the waterfront offices we inhabited at the time, a funky one story building up the street from the Pike Place Market, in Belltown, and close to the waterfront bars where he would sit with us and have a sip of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey, his favorite.

And later, when I moved to Pittsburgh to manage the Steel Valley Authority, I encouraged him to take the position of director, which he was awarded, and did a wonderful job. Later, Jim geared up the shipyards commission with Tom Lewiston and John Murray, two former shipyard rank and file leaders who launched the successful labor campaign mentioned earlier. This campaign, fueled as a result of the lockout by Lockheed Shipyards of 900 workers, won help for locked out and dislocated workers, and resulted in a state-managed retention initiative, and the re-employment program that Jim had come to town to manage.

Jim also helped move the Center to the umbrella of the King County Labor Council. Today, as you know, the Center, having won national awards and recognition, is busy today responding to the massive dislocations rocking the Puget Sound area. Workers in the Seattle area have an advocate, partly thanks to Jim’s leadership.

Calumet and FIRR

Jim’s last job was in the Gary, Indiana area, near Chicago, as the Executive Director of the Calumet Valley Project. Calumet is still going strong, by the way, and has carried on, as a result of Jim’s leadership, many of the remarkable programs to address the environmental clean-up needs of the brownfield communities of the region. Calumet has also continued waging economic and environmental justice campaigns on behalf of the many dislocated steelworkers and low-income and minority populations in the area.

Like Seattle and Pittsburgh, Calumet was a member of the FIRR Network. FIRR was initially funded by progressive churches in New York, where we would get together in a large religious house in Greenwich Village, and later brainstorm and b.s. into the night at an infamous bar, the White Horse Tavern, where Jack London drank and supposedly fell dead, a police drawing of his body on the floor preserved for posterity. People from Seattle and California joined people from Chicago, New England, Pittsburgh, and many other communities of the country suffering from economic shocks of the 1980s and early 1990s. We would see Jim on a regular basis at the FIRR meetings.

Our rabble-rousing helped usher in new, if too-modest, federal policies and programs, including the 60-day WARN notice on plant closures, and a national re-employment program for dislocated workers, and many state and city programs.

In 1989, we organized the Industrial Heartland Renaissance Conference in Washington, D.C., one of the first collaborations between our regional economic democracy groups and the international unions. One of the planks in the conference planning was a major chapter on the need for a national industrial bank, financed by workers’ pensions, connected to regional economic democracy groups. I helped write part of this program, as I was leaving Seattle for Pittsburgh. Jim helped me with the writing, as usual, through a slow and methodical process of talking out the possibilities, putting it to paper. Today, we have made tremendous breakthroughs, as a result of the Heartland Network in the U.S. and Canada, in gaining control of workers’ capital, and developing a long-term, domestic and sustainable investment strategy. Jim knew, like so many other times, a good idea when he saw it.

In Conclusion

Jim had a major stubborn streak, as some of you may have discovered, and I remember getting a call one day at the Seattle Center, barely understanding the person on the line. It was Jim, asking me to bring over candy bars, and I rushed over to his apartment in Seattle, before Katie had arrived to town, bringing him a couple of candy bars, as he was out on the floor, having neglected his routine.

He struggled for decades with diabetes, as you all know, a struggle that would have easily defeated me. The struggle later caused him to leave Calumet and move back to Seattle to await a double transplant. His stubbornness also may have kept him going a lot longer than many of us would have. I watched that stubbornness take on some truly difficult adversaries. Jim would take them on, not by belittling them, but by picking away at point after point, in his slow, methodical manner that would drive the other side up the wall, until they caved. It was a thing of beauty to watch.

Jim Cummings was a powerful force for change, and his work and actions helped tens of thousands of working people and poor alike, from one coast to the other, to obtain access to survival services, retain their job or win new employment opportunities, and maintain the dignity that comes from not being relegated to being a second-class citizen. He pounded away at the bad guys on behalf of average Americans, on behalf of people and families down on their luck, on behalf of whole constituencies and communities in-stress. He formulated, created and launched new initiatives, programs and public policies that are not only still going today, but have been replicated all over this country.

Jim railed against an America where millions of workers and their families have been cast to a laissez-faire, new world order that has harmed real people and families, and communities, and is not representative of what we were taught America would be. I only wish Jim was still able to fight with us today, in this uncertain new erahe would have said, that, remember, brothers and sisters, we can still build, with our brains and brawn, all of us, a better society, a better world, a peaceful world, one that supplies people and families with the employment, food, housing, transportation, education, recreation and future that we need as a peoplein other words, life, liberty and happiness. I can almost hear him saying it, can’t you?

If this is not the story of an American hero, I don’t know what is.

Albert Pike said that “What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.”

But I am having a hard time ending with this notion, as true as it is, for I prefer to think of my buddy and my mentor, Jim Cummings, not as someone who has passed, but as a prince of a man who simply needed to rest for awhile. And, along those lines, I’ll leave him and all of you, my friends, with these parting words, slightly modified, from Marcus Aurelius:

“Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, seashores, and mountains; and he too was wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the common sort of man, for it is in your power, whenever you shall choose, to retire into yourself. For nowhere with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul, particularly when he has within him such thoughts that by looking into them he is at once perfectly tranquilConstantly then grant yourself this retreat and refreshment.”

And, as I say goodbye for the last time, my brother Jim, I am glad you have been able to grant yourself this retreat, and I pray you have a good rest.

THOMAS CROFT is the Director of the Heartland Labor Capital Network. He can be reached at: t.w.croft@att.net

T. W. Croft, 2002. From the Unauthorized Autobiography of T.W.Croft