Today’s New York Times has a story on the 50th anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s murder, featuring interviews with Kennedy staffers and supporters. But the piece misidentifies Paul Schrade, who was also critically wounded when Kennedy was shot, as “a campaign aide” (in the caption) and doesn’t quite get it right in calling him “a labor organizer who worked on the campaign” in the text of the article.
It’s important to get Paul Schrade’s actual identity right, though—because he was a key figure in California and union history during the pivotal decade of the ‘60s.
As a young man, Paul had worked as an assistant to United Auto Workers (UAW) President Walter Reuther, who headed what today has to be viewed as by far the most important progressive union in American history. In the 1950s, Paul headed a UAW local at North American Aviation in Los Angeles, and became the UAW’s western regional director in the early 1960s. As such, he became, in 1965, the first established union leader to provide resources and assistance to the fledgling union of farmworkers that Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta were organizing. That same year, in the aftermath of the Watts Riots, he devoted union resources to establishing the Watts Labor Community Action Council and the East Los Angeles Community Union (TELACU), which became longstanding political powerhouses in LA’s black and Latino communities, respectively.
One year later, Paul put Chavez in touch with Robert Kennedy, who came to California to champion the farmworkers’ cause. Paul also opposed the Vietnam War early on—and when Kennedy declared his presidential candidacy in early 1968, Paul became his most prominent labor backer. By so doing, he also became the odd man out on the UAW’s national executive committee, on which he was by far the youngest member. Reuther certainly had profound misgivings about the war, and had helped form Negotiations Now, an organization that sought to bring the war to a halt but stopped short of advocating a unilateral withdrawal of U.S. troops. But Reuther was also an old friend and comrade of Vice President Hubert Humphrey, with whom he had founded Americans for Democratic Action in 1948. Humphrey was a solid liberal, but was tethered to Lyndon Johnson’s war policy and refused to break with it. Like most labor leaders, Reuther supported Humphrey’s presidential bid when Johnson announced in late March that he wouldn’t seek re-election.
The Kennedy-Humphrey rift between Schrade and Reuther was the UAW’s top-level, in-house version of the rift between the New Left and the Old. Over the next couple of years, Schrade grew more critical of UAW practices, and in 1970, Reuther’s successor as president, Leonard Woodcock, made sure that Paul wasn’t re-elected to the executive committee or the western regional directorship.
That hardly ended Paul’s work in and for labor. For some years, he returned to the assembly line; he also founded and led the California ACLU’s Worker Rights Committee and played a significant role in a host of worker causes. After the Ambassador Hotel (where Kennedy had been assassinated and Paul shot) closed down, he spent several decades leading the fight to build a badly needed high school on the site. That required defeating a number of other proposals, including one for a towering high-rise from Donald Trump. In time, Paul prevailed: The Robert F. Kennedy High School now stands where the Ambassador once stood. More controversially, Paul has also long believed that there was more than one shooter that June night 50 years ago in the Ambassador kitchen.
Paul’s sidelines are almost as interesting as his primary endeavors. He became an expert on Italian bread baking, and became a de facto consultant to LA’s tony La Brea Bakeries. A Wagner devotee, he made annual pilgrimages to Bayreuth. And as a longtime resident of Laurel Canyon, during one stretch in the ‘70s, his next-door neighbor on one side was Jerry Brown, and on the other side, Timothy Leary.