Irv Bluestone was a mensch of the highest order, greatly respected and well-liked by rank-and-file union members as well as by corporation leaders.
One of the pleasures of searching the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit is seeing a photo of someone you know. This was the case when I recently ran across an image of a friend of mine: Irving Julius “Irv” Bluestone (1917-2007).
Irv Bluestone was one of America’s great labor leaders. He was a mensch of the highest order, greatly respected and well-liked by rank-and-file union members as well as by corporation leaders. Plainly speaking, Irv was one of the most decent human beings that you could ever meet.
Irv was raised in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Jewish immigrant parents from Lithuania. He graduated from New York City College in 1937 with a degree in German literature and then headed to Switzerland to study at the University of Bern. Irv was one of the rare labor leaders of his era to have a university education.
While traveling around Europe, Irv found himself in Austria when German troops marched into that nation during the “Anschluss” in 1938. Luckily, as an American citizen, Irv was safe, but he was appalled. This was an epiphany for him: “I became convinced that only a strong labor movement can preserve democracy.”
Irv returned to the United States and landed a job as a grinder at the GM Hyatt Bearing plant in Harrison, New Jersey, in 1942. He joined the fledgling United Automobile Workers union (UAW) and immersed himself in the labor movement.
Irv soon proved himself to be a wise and innovative labor leader. In 1947, he was brought to UAW headquarters in Detroit by legendary UAW President Walter Reuther and, in 1961, became Reuther’s top administrative assistant. In 1970, Irv was appointed to lead the union’s largest unit, the GM Department. In that position, he represented 500,000 workers. In 1972, he was elected vice president of a UAW that had 1.5 million members and, unlike recent times, there was never a hint of scandal.
Irv retired from the UAW in 1980, and Wayne State University wisely offered him a position as university professor of industrial relations. His office was at the Walter Reuther Library where I worked for 25 years. I cannot tell you how much I learned from him. Irv was a true intellectual and an outstanding teacher.
Irv’s wife, Zelda, was also a gem, a wonderful person and Irv’s soulmate. Zelda told me a story about a road trip with Irv. They stopped at a rest area, and after a few minutes, Irv was back on the road. As he was thinking about an upcoming meeting — he was always pondering ideas — he suddenly realized that he had forgotten something at the rest stop: Zelda! She would tell that story with love for Irv and a twinkle in her eye.
Irv was also involved in Detroit’s Jewish community and is cited on 89 pages in the Archive. He often spoke at events such as the Men’s Club of Congregation Beth Achim (March 12, 199,3 JN), the JNF Tree of Life Dinner (May 1, 1993) or at Temple Emanu-El (Oct. 21, 1988). Irv was also a staunch supporter of Israel and its labor organization, Histadrut.
Former UAW President Douglas Fraser aptly described Irv Bluestone in four words: “He was pure gold.” Indeed. Doug was spot on.
Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.