A Tribute to Martin Gerber
Born in 1916 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the eldest of four children, Martin played football and basketball in high school and won an athletic scholarship to college. Martin’s father had died in 1929 and his family, headed by a single mother in the midst of the Great Depression, needed financial help. Martin had no money for books or clothing and went to work, not college.
In 1937, Martin won the New Jersey heavyweight golden glove championship and in that same year, went to work at the General Motors’ Linden plant where he unloaded car frames onto the assembly line for $0.60 an hour. The conditions imposed on workers by management were frightful and Martin helped organize UAW Local 595 in 1938. In 1944, he was elected Director of UAW Region 9 covering New Jersey, New York State and Eastern Pennsylvania as the youngest executive board member of the Union. He was an ardent supporter of Walter Reuther’s run for the presidency of the UAW in 1946. Martin loved to tell how Reuther announced his run for the presidency of the UAW at a caucus of the Union’s right wing in his (Martin’s) hotel room at the UAW convention in Pittsburgh that year.
Throughout Martin Gerber’s life, he was a dedicated champion of civil liberties, civil rights, equal opportunity, peace and social and economic reform. Under his leadership, Region 9 played a leading role in the fight for open housing in New Jersey.
Under Martin’s leadership, Region 9 grew from 20,000 members to a membership larger than many international unions – 120,000 members. But it often was a bitter, hard fought struggle. Martin almost lost his life in the thick of a bitter 18 week strike at Bell Aircraft in Niagara Falls, New York in 1949. Hearing that there was a disturbance on a picket line, he jumped on the running board of a car and headed to the picket line. En route, a police car suddenly cut the car off. The car braked abruptly and Martin was thrown from the vehicle, suffering a skull fracture. He was unconscious for over a week. Nevertheless, Martin was placed under arrest and was placed in the infirmary ward of the local jail. Through the efforts of Walter Reuther, Eleanor Roosevelt interceded and Martin was moved to a local hospital where he remained until his recovery. Martin and Area Director Ed Gray were later tried and convicted for “conspiracy” for their activities during the strike. On appeal, the convictions were overturned. The indictments for conspiracy never alleged that the “conspirators” engaged in any illegal acts. Interestingly, the county prosecutor was William E. Miller who later ran for US Vice President as Barry Goldwater’s running mate.
Martin served as Director of Region 9 UAW for 33 years, and was elected International Vice President in 1977 and served as head of the UAW’s organizing department. When Martin retired in 1983, he set the records as both the longest serving Regional Director and the longest serving member of the UAW International Executive Board – 40 years.
Throughout Martin’s life, he was a dedicated champion of civil liberties, civil rights, equal opportunity, peace and social and economic reform. He served as a delegate to six Democratic National Conventions beginning in 1952. In 1965, Governor Hughes appointed Martin to the first Board of Trustees of the College of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. In 1977, he received the Eugene V. Debs/Norman Thomas Award from the Democratic Socialists Organizing Committee for his enlightened, progressive Union leadership.
Martin was a member of the Labor for Peace organization during the Vietnam era, a lifetime member of the NAACP, was Vice President of the Jewish Labor Committee, a member of the Executive Board of the National Committee for Labor Israel and served as a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee of the University of Michigan – Dearborn.
Under Martin’s leadership, Region 9 UAW played a leading role in the fight for open housing in New Jersey. Region 9 UAW brought suit against the Township of Mahwah, the site of a Ford assembly plant, to change its zoning laws to allow for affordable housing for UAW members. That suit was the companion to one against the Township of Mount Laurel, which resulted in the decision of the New Jersey Supreme Court holding that municipalities may not create zoning which effectively excludes low and moderate income housing.
In 1968, the National Housing Act was enacted. It provides for subsidies to qualified non-profit corporations in order to develop affordable housing for low to moderate income families and senior citizens. The UAW was asked by the New Jersey government to form such a non-profit corporation to develop affordable rental housing. Under Martin’s leadership, what is today Region Nine Housing Corporation was formed and was awarded its first loan grant from the State. From this beginning, Region Nine Housing grew to administer nine housing projects in New Jersey and Pennsylvania with over 1,000 units.
Martin passed away in 2005 at the age of 89. He was survived by his wife, the late Florence Gerber, his children Lois and Edmund Gerber, daughter-in-law Madeleine Gerber and four grandchildren, Ellen Segal, Hal Finberg, Michelle Kass and Andrew Gerber.