Tom Keenan turned passion into activism

By Grant Glickson, Former NewsGuild of New York President

If you asked Guild activists at The New York Times over the past three decades how they got involved with the union, most of their stories would have a common thread that can be traced back to one man: Tom Keenan.

The longest-serving Times unit chair in the shop's history -- he was elected to seven two-year terms -- Keenan possessed the extraordinary capacity of turning furiously grieving members into union activists.

"The first time I met Tom I laced into him about a notice the union put out,'' recalled Monica Johnson, an Account Manager. "As I was complaining, he said, 'You know, you're just the kind of person we need. Why don't you get involved? We can make some changes.' He was so congenial and convincing that I wound up joining ranks with him as opposed to arguing with him.'' Johnson is now a steward, the unit's 3rd vice chairperson and a member of the Local's Executive Board.

A union leader whose refrain to grievants was, 'Why don't you get involved?'

Keenan, who also served on the Local's Executive Committee for 13 years, died of cancer in December 2000. His other roles as a Guild activist included chairperson of the Guild-Times Benefits Fund, trustee of the Guild-Times Pension Fund and chair of Guild bargaining committee at The Times, where he helped negotiate five contracts.

Keenan's long and distinguished career as a union actvist prompted the Guild's Adminstrative Committee to create an award in his honor in 1999, while he was still battling cancer. There have been 28 award winners since the tribute was created.

"When I presented the idea of the award to Tom in the hospital he was very moved by the Local's gesture,'' said Guild President Bill O'Meara, who was then secretary-treasurer, the Local's No. 2 officer. "He was extremely honored to have the award named after him."

Keenan came to The Times in 1968. He worked most of his career in the Credit Department as a supervisor in Guild jurisdiction. Times management actually tried to excludt him from Guild coverage, but the Guild challenged it in an arbitration and won. When his job was subcontracted, he moved into the Customer Order Fulfillment Department as a customer sales representative before taking a leave of absense to work for the Guild as a Local representative  in 1996. Keenan retired in 1999.

Keenan, known for his hearty laugh and a distinctive voice that betrayed a trace of his British roots, was always extremely committed to developing new union activists. "His standing mantra with members was, 'We're going to get you involved,'" said O'Meara. "He was very good at turning complainers into actvists.''

Perhaps his passion for reading, writing poetry, and his large collection of old motion picture lobby cards, promotional items, and recordings of old radio shows, helped keep him grounded and focussed on building our union. Keenan believed that the Guild needed the contriubtions of its members to make it strong and rejected the notion that it was enough to merely pay union dues as if they were insurance premiums.

"He would tell people, 'We do not have the insurance company approach to unionism,'" said Art Mulford, who retired as Local chairperson and Times unit chair in December 2009. "It's not like you paid your premiums for the month and if something happens, you just call the insurance company and they send in an adjustor. We have to have people who will band together and help out. We need people to get involved because the union is only as strong as its members.''

One of Keenan's most impressive accomplishments as unit chair was to help foster a truce among the two rival factions of union actvists at The Times in the late 1970s and 1980s.

"He helped heal the wounds and convince both sides to work together for the good of the membership,'' said Barry Lipton, former president of the Local. "Tom was quite simply a hero.''

Keenan's integrity, tireless dedication, proficient negotiating skills and affable personality were the key elements that helped him have so much influence over management and members during his time as an activist.

'We used to call him the Jimmy Stewart of the Newspaper Guild because he was so respected.'

"We used to call him the Jimmy Stewart of the Newspaper Guild because he was so respected,'' said Lipton. "He liked people very much and had a humble approach to dealing with them.

"I only saw him lose his temper once in all the years I knew him,'' Lipton continued. "And that's when someone on (New York Times) Labor Relations cursed at him. That wasn't Tom. He was a gentleman, with an English background. He was furious over the fact that the Guild, not he, was being treated with a lack of respect.''

Fernando Ariza, who spent two and a half years with Keenan as Times unit grievance chairperson, was most impressed with how Keenan communicated with irate members and difficult managers.

"He had a way of talking to people that put them at ease,'' said Ariza. "When your job is on the line and you're tense about it, that's what you need. Tom did that quite well.''

Ariza, now retired, learned first-hand how comforting Keenan was when he met him as a grievant. Like Johnson and so many others, Ariza entered the Guild office fuming over a potential grievance.

"Tom said, 'Calm down. This is nothing we can't handle.''' said Ariza. "He called my supervisor while I was there and told him, 'You know you can't do that.'  He fixed the problem right on the spot.

"When I came back the next day to thank him, he said, 'People usually come to the union when they are in trouble. But the rest of the time they don't do anything. You seem pretty passionate about things. Why don't you get involved?'" The next thing Ariza knew, he was a Times delegate to the Local's Representative Assembly. He would go on to become a shop steward, grievance chair and serve on the Unit Council and Local Executive Committee.

Other past and present Guild leaders recruited and encouraged by Keenan include Rich Kompa(former grievance chair) and the past two unit chairs: Lena Williams and Art Mulford. And you can include me as well. I'm the current unit chair at The Times.

"He did a lot to develop new people and get them active.'' Lipton said. "His approach was that we're going to help you but you have to help yourself too. He encouraged people to work to the best of their ability but at same time contribute something to the Guild in return.''

Go back.