In Honor of Herman Mulman, 1917-2005
by Eric Mann

Herman Mulman was a character, a free thinker and a mensch (Yiddish for a good guy). I first met Herman in 1982, when I was the coordinator of the Campaign to Keep GM Van Nuys Open. Our goal was to save a plant of 5,000 workers, primarily Latino and Black, and 15% women, from the hand of GM, the grim reaper, who was closing down plants in California right and right (why give the left a bad name). Their reason, profit maximization, they now decided it was more profitable to consolidate production in the Midwest, to reduce shipping costs and inventory storage, to move to "just in time" manufacturing, on the Japanese efficiency model. But what of the workers who had lived and worked in L.A. for decades, those at the GM Southgate Plant, shortly to be closed, and the GM Van Nuys Plant, in danger of being closed next? I approached the president of the local UAW Local 645, Pete Beltran, and proposed a pre-emptive campaign to keep GM Van Nuys open. But how could we force big bad GM to do anything, the workers were frightened, terrified, class struggle was the last thing from their mind, giving away the store was the sacrifice du jour - "concessions" in the form of wage give-aways, holidays, medical, dental, "whatever it takes boss" to keep my job.

Our local had a different idea, a more militant idea, a more creative and risky idea. Why not organize a boycott of GM from the community point of view - in that a union local, by contract, could not boycott its own employer. We formed the Labor/Community Coalition to Keep GM Van Nuys Open, a predecessor of the Strategy Center, and through ten years of community organizing, built a coalition strong enough to force GM to keep the plant open for a decade.

Out of that organizing work I met Herman Mulman, who even then said he was from "Seniors for Political Action" or some such group. Herman didn't look that old to me (and in Los Angeles and Hollywood, calling yourself a "senior" is career suicide) but he had good ties to the Democratic party and opened up doors with local elected officials like Howard Berman, who later became a real ally of the campaign. At the time Herman was running against the nemesis of progressives in the Valley, city councilman Ernani Bernardi - a ward healing flak who wasn't worth the time of day but who was hard as hell to beat. Herman ran against him on a shoestring, putting forth a progressive pro-labor platform and running a righteous, if tongue-in-cheek campaign. Herman got relatively few votes, but a lot of notoriety.

Herman was a very serious man in a not-so-serious suit of clothes. I had not seen him for years when he began showing up at Bus Riders Union meetings in the early 1990s. By then he had aged quite a bit, but was still feisty and outraged. If the L.A. bus system is bad, the San Fernando bus system is worse, and Herman never tired of telling us that. But every 3rd Saturday for almost 10 years he attended BRU meetings without fail. During the introductions he always introduced himself as "Herman Mulman, from that third world country, the San Fernando Valley." A lot of people didn't like that appellation - our members are predominantly Black and Latino, often immigrants, and some don't like describing the still very white and historically racist Valley as a "third world country." But I noticed that very few members really resented it, it was our young staff, politically correct in the good sense, who were a little too hard on Herman. And Herman could be a real pain in the ass.

He would often not use his headphones to listen to the Spanish translation ("What's the point," he would say "I can barely hear the English"), would often speak out of turn, and had a rather repetitious set of demands. "Let's throw all the bastards out of office." A true sentiment but one that we were hardly capable of implementing. But as some of the younger organizers had trouble figuring out what to do with Herman, I noticed how much affection he received from the older members, Latino, Black, Asian and White, who could identify more with Herman's infirmities and antics, his feistiness, his willingness to schlep in from the Valley on the bus for an hour and a half ride once a month, his mental alertness, and his willingness to fight. Once he got up to speak - "I have back problems, bladder problems, prostate problems ... if I knew I was going to live this long I would have taken better care of myself." And I watched as many of the elder members nodded in agreement, laughing at that old chestnut of a joke, as Herman lived into his 87th year.

About two years ago, Herman came up to me and said, "It doesn't look too good. I have prostate cancer. But my son is taking me to a very good doctor." But then of course, had to add, "But what the hell do those doctors know?" In the past 2 years he has looked in decline, his walk more halting, his posture more stooped, his attendance more sporadic, but still time after time he came to the meetings, if only to proudly and defiantly declare his third world roots knowing full well it pissed some people off, making him all the more happy to announce it.

[Editor's note: Herman had beaten cancer several years earlier. His son, who lives in Northern California and also suffers from congestive heart failure, took Herman to a cardiologist a few times, but Herman was cared for by his daughter and treated by Kaiser-Permanente in Southern California for his CHF until his death from the disease on 03/18/2005.]

It's hard to understand Herman as a type, the Jewish left liberal who really liked Black and Latino people, who was not a "white flight" Valley dog, who defended the rights of immigrants, who was comfortable being in a white minority, and who was a Jew, the unique friend of people of color among whites.

Last year during the MTA mechanics strike, when the strike shut down public transit for more than a month, as the BRU supported the mechanics while the mechanics union leadership did not do a damn or give a damn about bus riders, we set up a car pick up for members who needed rides to our central L.A. General Membership meetings. I was assigned Herman (just as later Martin Hernandez was generously willing to do for more times than my one-day assignment). I saw Herman in his modest home that he shared with his daughter, living very simply to say the least, and so happy to see me when I picked him up, and later, dropped him off. I heard him tell others later, with some pride, "You'll never guess who picked me up, Eric Mann. Eric Mann picked me up," as if I was the celebrity cabby of the month. Herman, it was an honor to pick you up. You gave your life to the struggle, bitching and moaning all the way to your grave, and probably if we listen carefully, still cursing out the system from six feet under.

Eric Mann was the coordinator of the UAW Campaign to Keep GM Van Nuys Open and is a member of the Bus Riders Union's Planning Committee.

April 4th, 2005

A similar version of this Tribute was read by Eric Mann on the radio (KPFK-FM) on Monday, 04/11/2005 @ 4:00PM PDT and will soon be available online in Voices from the Frontlines' archives.

 

This page's version of the Tribute is from a flyer written by Eric Mann and provided to us by the BRU. It was transcribed by Nora Salisbury. The final edit and page design is by Doreen Mulman.

Sites by Doreen Mulman

Official Herman Mulman Memorial Website

Books by Eric Mann