Phil Cohen earned his nickname by being one of the most effective labor organizers ever in a region that has never been kind to unions. But Cohen is more than just an organizer: He is also a songwriter, an accomplished wildlife photographer, and now, the author of a powerful memoir that offers an uncommonly up close and personal look at the struggles of organized labor in the South.
Story By Art Menius | Photographs by Kate Medley
Even today, in his 60s, retired and living in his own private paradise in the abundant woodlands of Caswell County, North Carolina, Phil Cohen doesn’t look like someone to mess with. His brown beard and long hair, showing signs of gray, remind me of a colleague who once had an appointment with a senior program officer at the Ford Foundation, but the security guard, mistaking him for a street person, kept throwing him out of the lobby.
But the image does fit the kid from the streets who became known as “Ninja Phil” as he organized major labor efforts in the South, including an epic struggle in the textile industry in Jackson, Tennessee, in 1989. That fight is now the subject of Cohen’s memoir — “The Jackson Project: War in the American Workplace” — which appeared last year from the University of Tennessee Press.
Cohen defies stereotypes. Born in New York City, he has been a Southerner by choice for nearly 40 years. He is a labor organizer, yes, but he is also an accomplished singer-songwriter and wildlife photographer. Maybe the only stereotype that fits him is the one that comes with his latest role: author, a man of words. Cohen has a seemingly endless supply of them. Our interviews span nearly six hours and 43,000 words. I told him the transcript could be edited into his second book. But the words do not gush out of Cohen’s mouth. This New Yorker speaks at Southern speed, pausing often to carefully construct his statements, just as a writer’s fingers might hover over the keyboard waiting for the sentence to form. Cohen, the speaker, uses a verbal backspace to restart a sentence or paragraph when a better construction or more precise wording occurs to him.
For our interviews, Cohen instinctively picks a spot in a corner behind my dining room table, where he is protected on two sides with a 45-degree viewing angle to the doors. He naturally takes control of situations. He is the dropout who learned to outsmart highly paid lawyers.
To understand how he got there, you must follow a path that begins in New York, then through Europe to Kabul, Afghanistan, onto Chapel Hill, and ultimately into the woods of Caswell County. To follow that path, you have to let Cohen tell his own story his own way.
Stay with us. You’ll understand it better by and by.
New York City made Phil Cohen a laborer and a rambling man with a guitar. He was a street kid.
“I'm from a working-class background, didn't have much of a childhood, left home when I was 16, and just lied about my age so I could earn a living,” he says. “I did blue-collar worker for 20 years following that. When I was 17, I lied about my age and got a job driving gypsy cabs in New York. These are illegal taxis that are not licensed by the city; they work in the neighborhoods where legitimate taxis are afraid to go. While doing that, I was busted repeatedly, and lost my driver's license. I was on the street, really sort of homeless and drifting around for a few years. I worked odd jobs on and off, lived in a skid-row hotel in New York. Ultimately, much to my surprise, I ended up getting asked by the owners of the hotel to become its manager, because I had the unique qualifications among residents in that hotel of being both intelligent and not a dope addict.” Finally resolving his legal issues in 1974, he became a legitimate cab driver and, for the first time, a union member.
“I have no formal education. I never went to college,” Cohen says. “Yet I got to a position in life where I spit out corporate lawyers before breakfast.” Not that Cohen was unlettered. Rather, his self-education came as another byproduct of his hardscrabble youth in the city. “During my young, taxi-driving days, I devoured books like a hungry leopard devours meat. In part, it was a way to escape from the dead-end reality in which I was living. That's really the reason that I read. I'd find an author that I liked, and I would just go through everything he’d written.”
A life of seemingly endless manual labor in New York City also made Cohen tough, a kind of smoldering toughness that is hard to develop growing up in the South. “I felt very very, very, very trapped. I was very, very angry; I was your typical, angry, New York taxi driver. I always drove in a T-shirt even when it was 10 degrees out because I think better when I'm cold. I looked pretty muscular in my T-shirt. I chain-smoked cigarettes and cigars. People took one look at me and knew not give me any grief.”
Those days provided Cohen more than just his initial exposure to unions and prepare him for Kabul. Far more. “When I look back now, my whole life up to that point was preparing me for what I ended up doing for a living,” he says. “Because it qualified me to go into situations where working people were experiencing what I had lived through. Not just a year or two but for 20 years. People instinctively sensed that I was not just one of them, but I’d been on a journey that I could then take them on.”
To help endure his blue-collar toil in Manhattan, Cohen created a reward for himself to augment the relief provided by reading, writing, and playing guitar. As a taxi driver, he saved his money for travel that in volume and means resembles the stuff of movies.
“In the late ’60s and early ’70s, I hitchhiked tens of thousands of miles across the USA and Canada,” Cohen says. “Later, I traveled overland across Europe and Asia tenth class, staying in 50 cents a night hotels. I was in Iran. I traveled across Afghanistan overland to Pakistan. I literally walked from Pakistan into India because that was in the middle of hostilities in 1977, and the buses from Pakistan couldn't enter India.”
What’s Kabul got to do with it? Kabul demonstrates how the hard knocks, the vagaries of taxi driving, and the wealth of experiences — particularly bad ones — forged Cohen into a man who could rebuild dying union locals.
“I can deal with anything that comes my way because I've already seen it in triplicate,” he says. “So, I was sent in throughout my career to the most difficult kind of situations, mission impossible situations, sometimes dangerous situations, situations where union locals were crumbling sometimes from within, often under the weight of repressive, anti-union, Southern management.”
He learned how to negotiate with tough guys in Afghanistan.
“I'm in Kabul,” he says. “I've never gone to any place without a guitar. I would travel without my pants before traveling without a guitar. So, I have a guitar, a guitar I still own to this day. I take this taxi from the bus station to this little fleabag hotel I’m going to stay in. The guy stops and ostensibly picks up another passenger. Turns out that the guy is his friend, and they try to strong-arm me into paying a higher rate than agreed upon. And when I said no, the guy says to me, ‘Look, you know, this is not Istanbul, this is not Paris, this is not London; you are in Kabul!’
“I said, ‘I'm from New York City, and there's not a damn thing you can show me.’ And he stopped about two blocks later and let his friend out, realizing it was a lost cause. Later, when we got to where we were going, he again tried to raise the agreed-upon rate and put his hand on the neck of my guitar, which was a really bad mistake. I cocked my fist, and I was about to punch his nose out the back of his head, and he let go of the guitar. I paid him and left. That's what you have with you no matter where you go if you survive the streets in New York. But that said, I feel twice blessed that I got out [of New York] because I don't know where the hell I would be now.”
Cohen’s path from the Middle East back to America eventually landed him in Chapel Hill, and he’s lived in the area now for 38 years — the last 23 of them with his partner in music and life, Patricia “T-bird” Ford.
After working a series of crappy jobs, Cohen was on the edge of giving up on Chapel Hill before landing a position as a Chapel Hill Transit bus driver. On that day in 1979, Cohen’s life began a decade-long transformation. His local 1565 of the Amalgamated Transit Union suffered from ineffective leadership, and ATU International offered no assistance. After little more than a year of wanting someone to “implement proactive representation” for the workers, Cohen concluded he was that someone.
As chief steward, Cohen’s native talent and ingenuity as a labor organizer emerged. Because municipal employees in North Carolina could organize, but not negotiate a contract, Cohen invented a workaround.
“I instinctively realized that the transit system was vulnerable because they serve the public in a liberal community that's going to be responsive to worker-rights issues,” he says.
Cohen formed alliances within the Transportation Board, local government, and the progressive Rainbow Coalition. Add to that his flair to engage the media and he'd methodically built his substitute. Instead of a contract, Cohen used Chapel Hill personnel ordinances to file grievances and represent people. “I put the mayor and the town council on the hot seat and got the town to make one concession after another,” Cohen says. “We negotiated so many agreements about how workers were going to be treated that it amounted to what you have in a collective bargaining agreement.”
After seven years, Cohen sought full-time union employment, cold-calling the state AFL-CIO president. Eventually the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (formerly known as UNITE, currently know as Workers United) hired him as an organizer, a position allowed him to stay in Chapel Hill and in his young daughter’s life. Though Cohen’s personal cost was hundreds of nights alone and long weekend commutes back home, it was the point where Cohen could be considered fully committed to living in the South.
“When I met with Phil,” says Ernest Bennett, then ACTWU assistant Southern director, “he was unique in that he had organized the bus drivers in Chapel Hill as a driver. He was an intense guy and very self-confident, both traits necessary for the job. He had both traits in spades! I felt that we could work together from that first meeting. After getting approval from the union, I called him and offered him the job, promising the long hours and difficult assignments. He readily accepted.”
Originally dispatched to a local in Andrews, South Carolina, Cohen recalls that, “In a sense, it was the perfect storm. It was a local where everything was wrong, but everything I touched turned to gold, and everything went right.”
Discussing his book requires getting Cohen to Jackson, Tennessee, a town most use only as a pit stop on I-40 between Memphis and Nashville — or recognize as the home of legendary railroad man, Casey Jones.
After his success in Andrews, Cohen’s next assignment in Jackson was far more challenging.
“An internal rebuild is because of weak local leadership coupled with anti-union activity by the company,” Bennett explains. “I sent Phil to Jackson because if there ever was the place for an internal rebuild campaign that was it. Low membership, ineffective leadership, and bad union history. Phil was a great organizer because he was confident and intense. That and an ability to communicate with working people were the keys to his success in the labor movement.”
The vivid, novelistic portraits of real people working at a troubled textile mill, fighting for their lives and livelihoods in a rapidly changing environment, distinguish “The Jackson Project.” The memoir is no labor-history text. Instead, it weaves real-life personal and union matters into a page-turning dramatic narrative.
Cohen told me why he wanted to recount these events of almost three decades ago: “There is no element of our society more misunderstood than unions. Books about unions are generally written by intellectuals standing on the outside and looking in. I wanted to share the reality from the perspective of an organizer who lived the fight — within the context of a dramatic, blue-collar thriller that would tear people’s heart out.”
During his year in Jackson, the textile mill changed ownership three times. Each time, management blamed the union, rather than their own poor decisions, which included a monumentally ill-considered purchase of major equipment.
Unlike in Andrews, in Jackson everything seemingly went sideways. Jackson demanded of Cohen all the attributes that led to success in Chapel Hill — his ability to overcome unwelcome surprises and his formidable toughness.
In Jackson, Cohen was essentially alone. He was six hours from the nearest ACTWU local and twice that from Chapel Hill. He had to find his own way. Cohen honed his abilities to build personal relationships on the other side even while taking a strong stand for his members and using every tool at his disposal to advance their cause.
“Sun Tzu, in ‘The Art of War.’ says, ‘The object of war is always peace.’ And that's really, really important,” Cohen says. “The art of war is not simply to kick the other party's ass and keep doing it. When I publicly attacked management, whether it was an in-house leaflet or in the press, I attacked issues. I attacked their position on a given issue. I did not attack them as people. I always maintained a cordial relationship with them as people. More importantly, one of the things I always said to my committees in a fight and at my rank-and-file meetings, I used the expression ‘what goes around comes around.’ I taught them how to fight ruthlessly but without hatred. And that's the magic by which a soldier transcends from being a soldier to being a warrior.”
Cohen, hardened in New York and on the road, tried to set that example.
“I would get the job done by any means necessary, and it worked because locals would have 30 percent membership, and when I left, it was 75 percent membership,” he says. “You'd have the worst members of management fired. People had better wages, better benefits, better contracts, and, more important, enforcement of that contract. All the health and safety violations were cleared up. So, what did it matter how I got it done? Ernest had the wisdom to understand that about me and to let me run. When Ernest and I used to work together, he said, ‘You run the ground war; I run the air war.’”
Ernest Bennett explains the difference: “Ground war vs. air war is a reference to the work rebuilding the local leadership and fighting the company on key issues. Phil was responsible for running the ground — i.e., all local activity. I would handle the air campaign, meaning non-local activity to put pressure on the company.”
The ownership changes at the Jackson plant made that war unwinnable. Relationships with management changed, while each new owner worked harder to break the union. The final owner, United Foods, shut the facility and then reopened, hiring non-union workers. Being employed in a Right to Work state made the barriers even greater.
Right to Work laws remain the biggest obstacle to organizing, and have spread from the South into Midwestern states. “Even under [President Barack] Obama, there was a growing movement towards Right to Work states in this country, and we see it accelerating already. Right to Work legislation is like a license to kill. That is such a tragedy for American workers.”
Cohen emphasizes the significance of a union contract and its two most important words: “just cause.”
“It invokes a standard of due process that is comparable to the right to due process afforded to somebody arrested for an infraction in our society,” Cohen says. “Rather than simply being a dry legal treatise about the rights under just cause doctrine, the book dramatizes quite a number of people who are disciplined and fired at the facility in question, the effect that it had on their lives, and how union representation under just cause got them their jobs back.”
In “The Jackson Project,” Cohen introduces readers to his daughter Colie, to Ernest Bennett, and to an assortment of sympathetically portrayed characters in Jackson. Tina, Cohen’s local girlfriend at the time, and Leo, unfairly discharged, were drug addicts who took advantage of the street tough organizer’s compassion. Percy was a good-hearted and well-intentioned local president whose alcoholism had contributed to the union’s decline. The loyal and intelligent Georgia eventually replaced Percy as president and assiduously looked out for Cohen’s safety. Donald, a practicing minister, and mill worker, formed an unlikely, but strong bond with Cohen. Those relationships no doubt kept him fighting the ground war in Jackson longer than practical.
When the union finally moved him to a position in North Carolina, Cohen left Jackson, knowing he would someday write a book about the experience.
Perhaps because of those experiences, to listen to Phil Cohen talk about the deeper meaning of unions in the United States feels like entering a mystical space.
“Organizing isn’t about bringing people into your world and values. It’s about venturing into theirs, and from that vantage point, teaching them to stick together and fight for a common cause,” Cohen says. “When you can awaken this in people, even if the plant shuts and the union local disperses that stays with them for the rest of their lives, and they will pass it forward. That's God's work. It goes beyond any cause, movement, or politics. And that's what the union is about for me. That's what my book was about for me.
“Unions have had a truly profound and transformational impact on the lives of working people in this country,” Cohen continues. “The labor movement is an example of unity in diversity. You have people coming from all these different backgrounds, all these different motivations. For some, it's more political. For others, it is more humanitarian. The synergizing of those differences is what makes for a stronger, more diverse movement.
“The union can convey to you a new sense of self-respect. After you incorporate that, it evolves into a sense of respect for the man and woman working next to you, a sense of becoming your brother’s keeper; a realization that race has no place in this picture. That's what unions tell you.”
Cohen sees unions as a last line of defense, “against corporations utterly dominating and exploiting our society. … A company can only go so far below union wages in its industry sector before throwing its gates wide open to a union-organizing campaign. A company can only go so far below the union standard about how people are treated on a day-to-day basis. So, we're always there as a yardstick that raises the bar for all workers in a way most folks don't realize.”
Those union values manifested themselves in Cornelius, North Carolina, where Cohen was an organizer after leaving Jackson. Then a small town between Charlotte and Statesville, Cornelius is where “Ninja Phil” encountered both the worst of the South and the ability of Southerners to redeem themselves. The union moved a Foamex plant there into his territory, in part so that he could address a Ku Klux Klan-dominated local in a facility with a good number of African-American, and eventually Latino, workers. He had not been assigned to Cornelius local very long when a dinner invitation resulted in three Klansmen — the mill chair, the local president, and a shop steward — from the local union screaming in his face.
“It was a really ugly scene, and I really wondered that if I was to get out of there without having to fight my way out,” Cohen recalls.
Eventually, Cohen found himself in an even tenser situation, an encounter that he calls the closest he has ever come to a shootout. This happened after the mill chair, who had invited him to that dinner, experienced a conversion of sorts, fueled by Cohen’s influence and union values and by joining a new church that preached against racism.
“He went through the type of profound personal transformation that happens within the union,” Cohen says. “He broke from the Klan and realized that it was his responsibility as the mill chair of that local to represent everyone equally. He and I together broke the power of the Klan in that local.”
That metamorphosis placed the mill chair at odds with the pair of unreconstructed, KKK-affiliated officers within the local. The confrontation happened at 9 p.m. in their union hall, located in an otherwise vacant field. Cohen recalls that “everybody including me was carrying a gun. Word on the street was that one of the Klansmen had killed a number of people. Everybody was standing around with their hands in their pockets. The air, the mood, the tension in that room was so thick that if someone had struck a match, the whole place would have gone up like kerosene flames. Eventually, I managed to talk everybody through the issues, and we went away, at least on the surface, shaking hands.”
The mill chair’s redemption through the union still had a ways to go.
“The racism within him eroded away very slowly,” Cohen says, while more and more Latino workers joined the Foamex workforce. The mill chair became convinced that he should call the Immigration and Naturalization Service to report undocumented workers.
“So, what do you say to get through to someone in a moment like that without alienating them?” Cohen asks. “It's certainly not to judge them on their values. From his perspective, he was doing what he believed was right and trying to correct something immoral.
“I said to him, ‘I understand your concern, but the thing is, most of these guys have signed union cards. Your first obligation as the mill chair of this local is to represent and take care of the union's members no matter who they are or what they're doing. So, you can't dime these people out for something they're doing that might be illegal, because first and foremost they’re union members, and you are this local’s mill chair.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘You're right, Phil.’ That's just an example of understanding people's thresholds and figuring out how to build bridges and slowly get through.”
During his 21 years after Jackson, Cohen helped lead many actions, especially in the Greensboro area: Highland Yarn, Cone Mills, Kmart Distribution Center, and Serta Mattress. His adventures ranged from dramatically — and a bit humorously — occupying the Prudential Building back in Manhattan to disrupt a Cone Mills initial public stock offering that would have left the workers' employee stock ownership plan out of the gains the IPO would produce. He taught Kmart a better, safer for the workers way to store items in the warehouse to the benefit of laborers and the company. During the Highland Yarns struggle, he won a decision before the National Labor Relations Board that, “set the national precedent for defining illegal employer assistance in an effort to decertify the union. In plain English, it defines illegal union busting by companies.”
During the mid-1990s, Patricia Ford entered Phil Cohen’s life, providing a support system back home. She established a foundation for Cohen’s life, which stretches well beyond union work and writing about it. Playing and writing music has been part of Cohen’s life since his teens.
“I started playing guitar and writing songs when I was 14,” Cohen says. “It was just something natural. It was just what I did. The only way I survived my life was through self-discipline, and that self-discipline was always applied as an artist. I've always had a rule. I do not go to sleep until I play guitar.”
Unlike most singer-songwriters, Cohen prefers to share his songs with listeners through recordings, rather than performing. As a teenager, he had played the small clubs of Greenwich Village and never caught a break, so the duo of Phil Cohen and Patricia Ford sticks to writing and recording. They now have four albums under their belt, including last year’s “Threads of Gold.”
The connection between his labor work and his lyrics is more personal than direct. “My songs start out autobiographically and then expand into the universal,” Cohen says. “The lyrics have a working-class flavor, because that’s who I am.”
Ford adds, “There are different things that we don't have to talk about anymore. We have developed a knowledge base of what each other wants. Phil is an exquisitely articulate coach for the music and what he wants me to put into the music. He is very wonderfully communicative and expressive.”
Singing together was part of their relationship almost from the beginning. “She has this genius for composing harmony parts that just really balance it out, so you have the synergy of a rough, down-to-earth lead with really beautiful harmonies running underneath, sometimes with two or three harmonies,” Cohen says. “On our latest album, she came up with such really powerful lead vocal presentations that she sings the lead on all the songs but one.”
Cohen’s search for beauty and peace also led him to photography. He began capturing stunningly intimate portraits of animals early in this century.
“I'm in a process of interaction with 99 percent of my subjects,” he says. “Every living creature has an awareness inside it, a sense of self. You can call it a spirit, but there is a being inside of every living creature. What I do with my photography is portraits of that being inside every creature. With almost all of my subjects, I am making eye contact. I am at very close quarters — in some cases much closer quarters than most naturalists would tell you is possible.
“I have developed some extraordinary relationships with animals in the wild. Making eye contact and moving very, very slowly, stopping and taking a few pictures, and then talking with them and moving a little more, I'm able to get remarkably close to subjects, some of which would be considered dangerous. Wild creatures comprehend when they're being appreciated. I've had the most unlikely creatures literally pose for me. I was once photographing a young alligator lying down a few feet away, and I just telepathically said to it, ‘Open your mouth for me.’ And he did it.”
“The Jackson Project: War in the American Workplace” appeared last summer as a book from a respected academic press, although it was written by a high-school dropout.
“The irony of that has not escaped me,” Cohen says. “The editor at the University of Tennessee Press who first read my book and worked with me through the process, his name is Thomas Wells, had some blue-collar in his background. I think that he was intrigued and excited by the prospect of adding a blue-collar dimension to the press catalog.”
Cohen needed an extended break from organizing to rejuvenate himself before starting the writing.
“He is such a powerhouse that it took some adjusting,” Ford says, “but he figured it out pretty quickly. The book was something he had always wanted to do. So, it makes sense that it was the first thing he did after retiring.”
Says Cohen: “Within a year of retirement, I was writing the book, which was every bit as all-consuming as being on the road for the union. I shut myself up in a room for a year and a half. I ripped out my heart and soul and poured them into a manuscript. because the intent was more than documenting an interesting piece of labor history. The book is a drama about life and people that unfolds as an especially interesting chapter within the world of organized labor. The intent of the book was the same as with the songs I write, which is to touch people at the most profound and personal emotional level, as well as open their eyes to the realities of what unions are about.”
“The Jackson Project” accomplishes those goals, hardly a minor achievement. His concern for factual accuracy makes it remarkable that he composed a memoir that flows so freely, much more story than history. Appearing effortless to the reader is one hallmark of strong writing.
That writing benefited from Ford editing the book. “She's actually edited everything that I've written over the last 25 years from magazine articles to legal briefs in arbitration and NLRB cases,” he says.
“I was in the publishing field for a number of years,” Ford says. “I learned a lot about how to proofread and edit and see that the right language was used. When Cohen got to the point where he needed to edit the book, he looked to me for assistance. We went through several drafts. I did help with a lot of basics, general stuff that a copy editor does. I was helpful with the precision and clarity, about getting to the heart and soul of the message in the unfolding of the events.”
What proved harder than writing was getting the book into print.
“I didn't know the first thing about the contemporary book publishing industry. I just wrote the book and decided I'd figure all that out afterward,” Cohen says. “I found out, much to my shock and horror, that once you've written the book, it's not done. The actual challenge is not to get someone to publish the book but just to get someone to read the manuscript.”
Once published, Cohen, through book signings and speaking engagements, reconnected with the broader labor movement. He did interviews in the pro-labor media. His lifestyle, however, has changed dramatically — going from trying to turn back scab delivery trucks from mill games in Jackson to watching his blind rescue turtle find its way through the garden gate.
Still occasionally called on for union arbitrations, he has settled into the rural life, writing, gardening, and making music.
“After I retired full time from the union in 2011, I got into gardening,” he says. “Patricia had been bugging me ever since we bought our house in the country in 2005 to have a garden. So, I'm finally retired, and I'm like, OK what the hell, we'll have a garden, and damned if I didn't really get into it. After the sort of life that I've led, it’s just what the doctor ordered.”
Being off the road, though beneficial for both T-bird and Phil, nonetheless has been an adjustment. “His life has become more routine, it's more scheduled. He's at home more so he has his time when he works in his studio, then he'll take two hours off to doing things in the yard or take a walk. We interact a lot more,” she says. “He is not done doing what he does.”
Cohen confirms this. “I saved every scrap of paper from my entire career because I always knew I was going to write about it, and this book is just the first in a series.”
Cohen will be writing and composing from a place far from New York City, far from Jackson, and particularly far from Kabul. Those places shaped him, but now he is home in rural North Carolina.