Last weekend would have marked a 42nd wedding anniversary for Susan Solomon; instead it was the first one spent without her husband, Fred Pecker, a career labor organizer who died last December.
“The thing with pancreatic cancer is by the time you find it, it’s advanced,” said Solomon, who was elected President of the United Educators of San Francisco within weeks of Pecker’s diagnosis in May of 2018.
“I continued working and took more days off than I normally would have,” said Solomon who spent this summer going to national teachers conferences, debriefing with her membership, and continuing to grieve her loss.
“I don’t know how people get through without that support,” said Solomon. Her assistance from family, friends, and hospice meant Pecker never spent a night in the hospital, though on two occasions, Solomon called for home health care workers.
“It’s hard work,” she said of care given by a large and low-wage workforce. “They do the work families can’t or don’t want to do. It’s good to see the growing movement to unionize them.”
Both Solomon and Pecker know something about organizing: They devoted their lives to labor movement, beginning with organizing Head Start teachers in San Francisco.
“I came from a union family and so did Fred,” explained Solomon who became a teacher with San Francisco Unified School District in 1999 and taught at John Swett Elementary until it closed in 2006.
“Our kids went there, our nephews went there, it was a school our family really liked,” she said. “I worked with some of the best educators I’ve ever known. When I became a teacher, I just started going to union meetings because that’s what you do,” she said.
Solomon was born here in The City; her father was originally from New York and worked as a carpenter and a teacher.
“He got blacklisted in the ‘50s,” she said. Her parents and Pecker’s parents were friends from college. Fred and Susan met as children and later married.
“We married quite young at City Hall on a Wednesday, in the judge’s chambers, before you could be married in the atrium or rotunda,” she said of the time when weddings there were booked on a first come, first served basis.
“We shared a world view,” said Solomon. “I can’t imagine couples who don’t.”
Bringing their organizing experience with them, Pecker was immediately targeted as an agitator.
“Fred resigned on the advice of my mother who felt that management would keep harassing him as long as he worked there,” said Solomon. “He took a factory job at Guittard Chocolate and pretty soon became shop steward and soon after became a union rep and secretary-treasurer of the local.” He would be doing on-the-ground organizing for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).
“I stayed home with our kids, did part-time work, worked in daycare part-time, home daycare, really because Fred had a union job with union wages,” explained Solomon who still lives in affordable, coop housing. “I couldn’t have stayed home otherwise,” she said.
After John Swett closed, Solomon applied for a full time union staff position and got the job. Twelve years later, in her role as union president, Solomon identifies the affordability crisis as a front-burner issue for her teachers and students. She’s encouraged by past and current ballot initiatives like this fall’s A and E, concerning affordable housing and specifically housing for teachers.
“So far, Prop G, implemented a year ago — which added seven percent to everyone’s salaries in an effort to attract and hold on to teachers — seems to be working,” she said. “It had the desired effect of fewer people leaving.” This summer there were just 200 vacancies instead of the previous years 300 to 700 listed.
“The other issue is how to provide quality education for our students, particularly students with special needs and those who need additional support because of the traumatic lives they lead,” she said. “The school board in 2014 passed a safe and supportive schools policy that has not yet been fully implemented. As we go into negotiations next spring, these will be the main issues for us.”
And while the union didn’t take a position on the contentious mural at Washington High School that dominated the school district’s board proceedings this summer, they supported the effort to provide shelter for families without housing in the Buena Vista/Horace Mann community last year and are in favor of the scheduled 2021 closure of juvenile hall.
“We’re definitely against incarcerating youth,” said Solomon, “But we have concerns for where not only those students will land, but for all the workers who are employed there.”
Pecker’s last major drive was organizing East Bay recycling workers. Since his passing, it’s Solomon who is called on by booksellers, brewery workers and veterinary technicians, seeking to share and receive organizing tools.
In his final act of resistance Pecker went to claim his Employment Development Department benefits from the bank that administers them, only to be told that it was not their money to disburse. He repeatedly stated, “This is theft, it’s my money,” and 10 minutes later, he and Solomon left with his benefits in cash.
“He was not going to let a multi-national corporation take his money like that,” said Solomon. “It really summed up everything about him.
Just before he died, Pecker was honored by the City of San Francisco for his work as a union leader.
“He always said he was a New Yorker,” said Solomon. “Our son and daughter and I were happy to hear him for the first time ever call San Francisco his city.” Both Naomi Solomon and Herschel Pecker and their respective partners came home to spend their parents’ anniversary weekend with their mother.
“We spent several hours working on the backyard, sprucing it up,” said Solomon. “Fred loved the backyard.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.
Editor’s Note: Solomon and Pecker began organizing Head Start teachers in San Francisco, not in Washington D.C. Solomon also first applied for a full time union staff position, not a part time secretary position. The Safe Schools policy passed in 2014, not 2019. The story has been updated to reflect these corrections.