Henry 'Jim' Koellein

A World War II Marine, the former state commissioner of labor and industry was a highly regarded union activist.

December 04, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Henry "Jim" Koellein Jr., former state commissioner of labor and industry and a highly regarded labor activist, died Sunday of a massive heart attack at the University of Maryland Medical Center. He was 82.

Mr. Koellein, who was called "Jim" all of his life, was born in Baltimore, the son of a German immigrant father, and raised near Patterson Park. He attended city public schools until enlisting in the Marine Corps in 1943.

Landing with the 4th Marine Division during the invasion of Iwo Jima, Mr. Koellein was severely wound by a grenade. He spent months in the hospital before he was able to return to Baltimore.

The Purple Heart recipient told The Sun in a 1980 profile that he "remembered being deliriously happy about making it alive to the age of 19."

"He was so badly wounded that when he was taken to the beach, they were going to leave him," said Thomas J. Rostkowski, former president of Local 1805 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and a longtime friend. "There were so many wounded that they were only evacuating those who they thought might have a chance of making it."

Finally, Mr. Koellein grabbed the leg of a passing corpsman, who stopped and agreed to help him.

"Years later, Jim was attending a reunion on Maui when he recognized the corpsman who had saved his life. The corpsman, who also recognized him, later went on to become a highly respected physician," Mr. Rostkowski said.

"It was because of his wartime experiences that he disliked foreign imports from Japan. He said [the Japanese] were 'not honorable during the war,' and he held that against them for the rest of his life," he said.

After the war, he became a baker's apprentice and found the work daunting.

"In 1947, I was living in a housing project, making $50 a week and working more than 50 hours for that. We worked six days a week, from the early morning until the job was done," Mr. Koellein said in the 1980 interview. "I had no benefits and no health insurance. I used to walk to work to save a lousy dime on bus fare, year-round."

Hospitalized for nine weeks with a hernia, Mr. Koellein recalled that the bakery where he worked provided him with a total of $5 in sick pay. "I had a wife, two kids and one on the way, and no money coming in," he said. "I'll never forget those times."

Mr. Koellein's life drastically changed in 1951 when he went to work for the Acme Bakery, which was unionized.

"I only had to work five days and 40 hours a week, and I started getting benefits," Mr. Koellein said.

After joining the Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers International Union Local 68, Mr. Koellein rose through its ranks and served as its president and business manager for 30 years.

"He became a staunch unionist, helped win a reform movement in the bakers' union and became an almost permanent fixture in the leadership of his local and a fixture in the regional coalition of AFL-CIO unions," The Sun observed in 1980.

In 1980, Mr. Koellein was elected president of the Metropolitan Baltimore Council of AFL-CIO Unions.

"He believed that the labor movement had to have struggles, but he didn't want people to get discouraged. He wanted them to continue," Ernie Grecco, who succeeded Mr. Koellein as president of the local coalition of AFL-CIO unions, said yesterday.

"He liked to quote Frederick Douglass, who said, 'If there is no struggle, there is no progress,' " Mr. Grecco said. "He was a tremendous negotiator and very serious when it came to representing our members. He wanted to get the most he could for them."

Mr. Rostkowksi described Mr. Koellein as a "man of unlimited integrity and whose word was his bond. He always put a good face on labor."

"He could be a tough labor negotiator but wasn't unreasonable. He knew what people wanted and needed, yet he wasn't a radical. He was respected by both sides," Mr. Rostkowski said. "He kept control by just being there, and at meetings, he never had to shout or holler."

Mr. Grecco said Mr. Koellein was also a community leader.

"He believed in the community," he said.

Mr. Koellein played a pivotal role in establishing the Philip H. Van Gelder Award, which has been presented since the early 1980s by the United Way of Central Maryland to an individual for "outstanding community service and labor leadership." The award honors the work of the Baltimore labor union organizer, who died in 1999.

Mr. Koellein was also a longtime labor representative on the board of directors of Big Brothers and Sisters of Central Maryland Inc. In 1976, he became the first elected president of the organization and was the first president of a volunteer organization in Baltimore to come from the ranks of labor, relatives said.

In 1988, Gov. William Donald Schaefer appointed him state commissioner of labor and industry, a position he held until retiring in 1996.

Through the years and continuing into his retirement, the longtime Severna Park resident was a prolific contributor of letters to the editor dealing with labor issues.

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