Ed Asner: Socialist To the Core

When we lost Ed Asner last week, DL reached out to comrades who worked with him to build what was then an embrsyonic formation of socialists in America–and then became the national network we know today. Below, Kim Fellner and Michael Lighty salute an incredible artist and comrade we already miss.

Union Leader True to his Roots
By Kim Fellner

Asner and Fellner at an American Federation of Labor conference.
Asner and Kim Fellner at an American Federation of Labor convention.

We can’t predict how our lifelines will intersect with a political era, we can only decide what to do about it. Actor Ed Asner, who died on August 29th at the age of 91, made the most of his moment—not just as a working-class working actor, but as a trade unionist, a fierce opponent of President Ronald Reagan and as a socialist.

He also happened to be my boss and comrade, back in the early 1980s, when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and I was the union’s information director.

When I posted a small memorial to Ed on my Facebook page, I was blown away by how many friends and colleagues added their own anecdotes—how he had come to their picket lines, spoken at their rallies, signed a fundraising letter, shared a meal, given encouragement to their members during a difficult struggle. 

And when I took the long-neglected boxes of SAG memorabilia down from the shelf, right on top, were several of the speeches he’d made to the Democratic Socialists of America in those turbulent Reagan years, where the right-wing fixation on personal aggrandizement over collective action for the common good really took root, to become an invasive pest in our democratic garden.

By 1980, Ed Asner, initially a highly respected character actor, had become a star for his TV role as newsman Lou Grant, a character usually described as some variant of crusty on the outside, soft on the inside.  He had debuted the role on the Mary Tyler Moore Show and then transformed it into a meatier version of crusading newspaper editor on the hour-long Lou Grant show. 

But that summer, Ed took on another role: union leader. When SAG went on strike for 94 days against the motion picture and television producers, Ed was not only among the first major players to walk the line, he organized his fellow actors to do it too, and became a public face and voice for the principles of solidarity and economic fairness.  

He leaned into this new role with gusto, but it wasn’t an act. His dad had been a Jewish junk dealer in Kansas City, and Ed had a bunch of jobs before making it as an actor—as a shoe salesman, a taxi driver, a worker in steel and auto plants. Those roots grounded him in a tradition of social justice that remained part of his entire life.

In 1981, when Ed was elected SAG president, he inherited a union with a lot going on: The film industry was leaving the old studio system in the dust and undergoing massive corporatization and consolidation; the technological revolution that would upend content production with the Internet and the likes of Amazon was barreling down the pike; and the Guild was just coming out from under the legacy of the McCarthy Era, during which hundreds of actors had been purged and blacklisted as cCommunists, leaving the union quite timid when it came to political action. 

He also found himself at a political moment where one of his predecessors, former SAG president Ronald Reagan—who had actually helped blacklist fellow actors—had just become president of the United States, and had views directly opposed to the ones Ed held. When Reagan fired 11,000 air traffic controllers for going on strike, Ed was one of the first to join a support picket line. When a Guild committee tried to give the union’s top award to Reagan, Ed and his majority on the board blocked the way. And when Reagan poured money into the corrupt and lethal right-wing regimes in Nicaragua and El Salvador, Ed was an outspoken opponent, joining progressive groups and DSA to demand policy change at home and offer humanitarian support abroad.

It cost him. Plenty. First came a concentrated attack from Charlton Heston, another former SAG president who supported Reagan and would eventually become president of the National Rifle Association. Then came the hate mail and death threats. Some of the advertising sponsors of Lou Grant withdrew their sponsorship. And in pretty short order, CBS, whose chairman was a pal of Reagan’s, canceled the show.

Ed had loved being Lou Grant, and losing the show was very painful. But he didn’t renege on his principles. He continued as union president until 1985 and became close to other progressive union leaders, such as Machinists president William Winpisinger and Jack Sheinkman of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, who formed the National Labor Committee in Support of Democracy and Human Rights in El Salvador. All those guys were also members of DSA.

Ed’s career did rebound, he garnered a lot of roles and accolades, although it perhaps scrolled out differently than it might have if he hadn’t put his values on the line.  And he continued to believe in those socialist principles and to remain active right to the end, a vehement opponent of all things Trump and an advocate for myriad progressive causes. 

I’d like to share some of what Ed said when he accepted the Debs-Thomas-Harrington Award from DSA in 1985. These many decades later, I can still hear him, loud and clear.

“I’m happy to be here among my often cynical but still committed colleagues, we who remain ever hopeful in our despair, steadfast in the face of defeat, and convinced in the face of countervailing evidence that, in the end, the truth shall indeed make us free.

As the poster hanging in a friend’s house says, ‘The truth shall make you free—but first it shall make you miserable.’

Well this is the misery stage…. Which brings us to the key question: Why are you and I really here? We’re here to pass on the legacy, born of hard times, sustained through hard times. We’re here to make sure that those distant agonies and the gains they produced are not forgotten or lost. It is our job to tell the story, and to live the lessons, no matter where we are or what we are doing….I continue to look forward to the freedom and to hope that we shall all live to share it together.”

All the Way with DSA
By Michael Lighty

Growing up, I was steeped in popular TV shows of the 1960s and 1970s, so many of which spoke to the transformations in culture and politics. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was irresistible to me, as much for the conflict and repartee between the producer Lou Grant and the vacuous, vaguely right-wing anchor Ted Baxter as for Mary herself. 

As a student activist opposing the draft and the U.S. wars in Central America in the early 1980s, I was very happy to learn that Ed Asner, the actor playing Lou Grant, shared my socialist politics. I don’t recall how I first learned that Asner was a member of DSOC, but historian Maurice Isserman notes that he joined at the time my political mentors Harry Britt and Ron Dellums did in 1979. By the time he joined the board of Medical Aid to El Salvador (MAES) in 1982, DSA had formed from the merger of the New American Movement and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and was fully engaged in the resistance to U.S. military interventions in EL Salvador and Nicaragua. MAES was like the celebrity wing of the anti-intervention movement, and those who worked there describe meetings in Asner’s office, where they took direction and inspiration from his  straightforward, gruff, and at times profane approach. Asner, a supporter of the FMLN, which led the armed struggle in Salvador, was particularly concerned that the money raised for hospitals and clinics be spent on that aid. 

In the long tradition of the Hollywood Left, Asner was a trade unionist, deeply devoted to his craft and to justice for actors. He attributed the cancellation of his show Lou Grant  in 1982 as much to his union activism as to his opposition to US intervention. 

I encountered him when I worked for a Hollywood-based film workers union in the late 1980s as he finished his term as president of the Screen Actors Guild. He supported the Directors Guild fight and brief strike in 1987 and the Writers Guild strike in 1988, both over “residual” payments from the Wall Street -funded film and television studios. When I became DSA national director and we embarked on a fundraising campaign, Asner signed an appeal, one of our most successful letters. He valued being a card-carrying member of DSA, proudly telling a colleague last month that he was still a member. Apparently, he came by his politics through his father, who self-identified as a socialist. We are proud to call the Emmy Award-winning, committed labor leader and fighter for justice our comrade. Ed Asner, Presente!

Michael Lighty, a Sanders Institute Fellow, serves on the DSA Medicare for All Steering Committee.