BLAC Legends: Rory Gamble

Bringing – and keeping – people together has been his role since joining the UAW in 1974. Now that the political ground has shifted, the organization is finding new ways to communicate with its members.

Rory Gamble
Photo by Lauren Jeziorski taken at Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails

Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails in Detroit has an organic feel, punctuated by the color scheme wrapped about the walls – it invites you in. Awash in a green environment, you feel strangely at home. Rory Gamble walks in through the back door with a wide smile on his face.

Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” plays overhead, and he’s quick to say when we shake hands, “You don’t know anything about that,” but I hesitate to get into a long discussion on ’60s era rock and San Francisco psychedelia, which would probably have had us chatting through most of the afternoon – especially if we broached the subject of Hendrix.

Gamble has been at work within his community for more than four decades. He’s currently vice president of the UAW at the union’s 37th Constitutional Convention in Detroit and has previously served three terms as director of UAW Region 1A. He orders a decaf and we settle down in comfortable wooden chairs to discuss Detroit – and America’s – future.

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You work with a diverse group of folks every day. How diverse was the neighborhood that you grew up in?

I grew up in what’s called southwest Detroit – it’s the melting pot of the city. I grew up with white kids, black kids, Hungarian kids, Russian kids, Asian kids, Arabic kids – it’s a melting pot of Detroit. We’re right at the edge of the city. (Where) I grew up … it was a very diverse neighborhood … we had what they used to call a nuclear family. It was maybe only one household with a single parent. It was a grand old time.

Oftentimes, there’s someone in the family with a union affiliation. Was that the case with you, or was there another factor or influence?

My first contact with the UAW? My dad was active in the union (as an officer of the UAW Local 600). He took me to my first union meeting when I was 7. This particular unit had about 2,500 men working in it and there might have been 40 women. The person chairing the meeting was a small, petite black lady, Francis Rogers.

She was the first African-American woman elected to chair a UAW-Ford union. As a 7-year-old kid, that impressed the hell out of me, to see this little black woman up there running a meeting with all these men. This was at a time when women weren’t even equal in their households. So that just impressed me … the power of what my dad was affiliated with. He was a very active rep. A lot of people looked up to him – I was born into it.

How important was education when you joined the union?

After I started working at a plant, I found that these guys had a high standard for you being a rep. You had to educate yourself. You had to take classes. You had to go out and learn procedure, grievance handling, collective bargaining, and Wayne State offered all those courses in that labor program – that’s where I got my labor education.

You joined the UAW in 1974 – that was right around the start of Coleman Young‘s tenure as Detroit mayor. Were you inspired by his activism in some way?

My dad knew Coleman. My dad had been active with Coleman in the community before Coleman became mayor. Coleman was always an inspiration for us young guys coming up in the city. He was outspoken. He was a fighter. I actually got to meet him several times. My dad would go play cards at the Manoogian and I would be the bartender.

I didn’t know anything about pouring drinks. I’m pouring ‘water glasses’ of liquor and Coleman was standing there watching me and in his Coleman way, he walked over to me and said, ‘Man, you got these MFs well-oiled.’ That just blew me away. Here’s a mayor … he’s an icon and he’s talking like us: down-to-earth and honest. I’ll never forget that as long as I live.

You’ve been through several administrations: Young, Archer, Kilpatrick, Bing and now Duggan. How has the UAW adapted – if at all – to these changes in leadership?

One thing about the UAW, we’ve always advocated for progressive leadership. In the city, we’ve always worked very hard to support communities in which (members) live. Detroit has always been a city that has needed a lot of work. Initially, we didn’t back Mike Duggan. We backed Sheriff Benny Napoleon. However, Mike Duggan has proven he has been able to bring money and resources back in the city.

Unlike what you see in Chicago, where the neighborhoods are crumbling. The downtown area is well-financed and everything’s booming. He’s made commitments to build up the neighborhoods, which has been my pet peeve all along, that nothing’s being done in these neighborhoods. Now we see some projects going up. I’m happy with his leadership so far.

Is there a single mistake – or series of mistakes – that shaped your current success in some surprising way?

The worst job I’ve ever done in this union … I was treasurer of our credit union. A guy like me, a trade unionist? That’s not a good position. As a trade unionist, you’re forever trying to help folks. You can’t say no. When you’re handling money, you have to be able to say no. That was probably the worst job I ever had connected to the union. It showed me the greatness of being a trade unionist and it also showed me the downside, in that sometimes you can’t say yes to everything. You got to be able to – with a heart, with compassion – say no, with the foresight that you’re doing it to make someone’s life better.

How has racism – as you’ve seen it – shifted over time?

For a black man in America, we’ve never had a mindset that racism is gone. As a black man in America, you’re always going be exposed to racism and we never had a time where we can be comfortable in our setting, where we’re not going to encounter that. People who were always racist are not afraid to expose themselves anymore. I don’t worry about myself. I had a great life. I worry about my grandkids. I worry about what kind of world is going to be out there for my grandchildren – I’ve got 34 grandkids. What kind of world is going to be there for them?

One of the greatest allies of the Civil Rights Movement was the labor movement. We achieved equality of wages and benefits in the workplace before it was actually accepted in the country. I see the labor movement as transcending race, giving (members) the opportunity to experience different people and in that experience, it breaks down a lot of stereotypes.

Can you talk about UAW’s engagement plan for 2020?

I call it a ‘clutch,’ where we sit down and have one-on-one discussions. It’s a no-holds-barred kind of thing – we talk about any subject. We’ve got members that like Donald Trump (but) there’s a big picture. The most important picture is wages and benefits – that’s what allows you to provide for your family. You’re worried about losing a gun and over here they’re cutting your wages, they’re killing your benefits and denying your kids an educational future while you’re hung up on issues that don’t really affect you that importantly.

What legacy would you like to leave?

I want my legacy to be that he did his job, he always put the members first and he always upheld and respected the organization. Unions are important to people like me who come out of the inner city. Not just for black folks, for everybody. We can’t uplift a race and then hold another one back. We all have to be able to come up together. That’s what’s going to make a better world – we all should have the same opportunities and the ability to share in life and provide for our families in a respectful, fair way. If I can hold up those three things for my union, I’ll be a happy man going forward. 

Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails in Detroit is open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and dinner 5-9:30 p.m.Tuesday-Thursday; 5-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 15 E. Kirby St., Suite D, Detroit, 313-818-3915.

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