Faces of ALBA-VALB: Richard Bermack, Photographer

March 13, 2016

Richard Bermack is a documentary photographer and writer who has worked primarily for labor unions, including SEIU, the UAW, and the ILWU. In addition to his work on radical and labor history, he has written about and photographed workers involved in children and family services, welfare reform, aiding people with disabilities, and health care reform. Among other things, he currently works for Organized Labor, a publication of the San Francisco Building Trades.

Your book The Front Lines of Social Change: The Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Bridge is filled with photographs and interviews of the veterans. How did the book come about and why did you produce it?

Richard Bermack with his 1994 portrait of Milt Wolff in 2005. Photo Richard Green.

Richard Bermack with his 1994 portrait of Milt Wolff in 2005. Photo Richard Green.

In the 1970s I was working with an organization in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Radical Elders Oral History Project (REOHP)—‘60s radicals interviewing radicals from the 1930s. We were trying to preserve the radical legacy, resurrecting it from the ashes of the McCarthy era. As I worked on REOHP, I started attending the annual San Francisco Bay Area VALB dinners. They were major events at that time. Eight hundred or more attended. It was like a Who’s Who of the left. Speakers ranged from writers like Isabel Allende, Alice Walker, and Studs Terkel to movie stars like Ed Asner and Martin Sheen. If you wanted to meet and photograph 1930s activists, those dinners were the place to be.

At about that time I co-hosted a radio show on KPFA, Older Men, Older Women. I had Milt Wolff and Ed Bender on to promote the dinner. After that I became a close friend of Milt and got involved with the Bay Area Associates of VALB, photographing and helping to produce the performances for the annual events. I exhibited the photos at their 50th reunion and helped Judy Montell with her film, Forever Activists.

After 9/11, amid the rising militarism of the Bush era, I felt it was important to get the story of the vets out, to provide hope and inspiration for those with a progressive vision, as well as to honor the vets.

The book shows images of the veterans in their youth and as they aged. What did these photos reveal to you about the veterans?

As I went through the Daily Worker photo archives, I was moved by how mainstream the struggle for Spain had been. The picket lines were filled with Broadway stars, and their event filled Madison Square Garden. But what really drew me in were the vets themselves.

The vets were amazing people with incredible vitality. They lived to organize people and events, to walk picket lines, and to march in demonstrations. They would try to get you involved in whatever cause they were working on at that time. They were very inclusive and a lot of fun. As Milt Wolff stated, “Activism is the elixir of life.”

My book is about how the commitment the vets made to fight in the Spanish Civil War gave their lives meaning and a sense of purpose that would guide them for the rest of their lives. VALB members were active in the struggles for civil rights and labor unions, opposition to nuclear weapons, and the anti-war movement from the Viet Nam War to the Gulf Wars. They were particularly active in opposing U.S. intervention in Central America and in the anti-Apartheid movement. What inspired me was not just what they did in Spain, but how, in spite of all the repression they suffered, they stuck with the struggle their entire lives.

One of the first vets I met on the steering committee of REOHP, Virginia Malbin, had been a social worker in Spain. She never seemed to age. She was still white river rafting and traveling the world in her late 80s. The last time I saw her, she was in her 90s and had just moved to a retirement center for teachers. When I asked her how it was living in a senior center, she told me it was great. They had the whole place organized, and no one was going to vote Republican. They had book groups, political discussion groups, and cultural events. The only problem with the place, she said, was the way the service people were being treated. So she formed a committee with other residents to meet with management and they demanded better treatment for the workers. As we walked down the hall, people stopped her—“Virginia, we have to talk later….”

You spent a lot of time with the veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.  Could you describe your trip to Cuba with them?

In 1993, Global Exchange organized a trip to challenge the U.S. travel blockade of Cuba. It was illegal to go to Cuba, and the VALB members were going to dare the U.S. government to arrest them. Milt Wolf recruited me to go, along with some of the other associates, including David Laub, Heather Bridger, and Kathy Ryan. Others on the trip included Nate and Corine Thornton and Hon Brown (the chairperson of the Bay Area post and the widow of vet and ILWU firebrand Archie Brown). Milt Felsen, a vet from Florida, was also part of the delegation. In addition to challenging the travel ban, VALB was donating money to the William Soler pediatric hospital and other medical facilities in Cuba. While in Cuba, we met with a Cuban vet.

Right before the trip Milt had been in an accident while bicycling to the gym at 6 in the morning. I picked him up at the hospital. As he was leaving, a Latino nurse ran up to him and shot her fist in the air, chanting “Viva Communista. Viva Communista.” He had told her all about the Lincoln Brigade and the trip. (This, by the way, was typical of the vets. I remember visiting Ed Bender in a nursing home, and even bed-bound he had managed to sell tickets to the annual brigade dinner to residents and staff of the facility.)

Unfortunately Milt was in pain and a little out of it for most of the Cuba trip. But as we were returning through customs in Houston, we were greeted by the media. Milt immediately snapped back to life. “The US government has just seized our passports for traveling to Cuba. The last time they took my passport was for fighting to stop fascism in Spain,” he thundered at the reporter.

Throughout your career you have written about and beautifully photographed everyday people helping others. What drew you to this theme?

I believe that the proper role of society is to create a better life for everyone, not just for the wealthy. Besides my work with ALBA and the Lincoln Brigade, some of my best work was producing a newspaper for a union that represented social service and health care workers. We fought to improve the working conditions of our workers so they could provide better services and improve the lives of those in need. I tried to show in my photographs and stories that social work can make a difference for individuals and for society as a whole. That’s why many of the Lincoln vets were involved in social work and healthcare, making the world a better place for everyone.

The Lincoln Brigade veterans demonstrated that the value in life comes from helping others. This message particularly resonates with young people, who are so desperately looking for alternatives to the predatory, individualistic, corporate ideals perpetuated by politicians and the mainstream media today. If ever there was an answer for those who feel left out in the cold by the likes of Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and the establishment, it is the legacy of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, not just their sacrifices in Spain, but how they led their lives after Spain.