Farewell to Heidi Durham: Revolutionary feminist and fighter for the oppressed

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FSP candidates Heidi Durham and Yolanda Alaniz (at right) made a splash with their 1991 race for Seattle City Council.

“A comrade is as precious as a rice seedling” is the title of a poem by Filipina poet Mila Aguilar. It applies to no one more than it does to Heidi Durham, a leader of the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) and Radical Women (RW) who left an indelible political imprint when she died this past summer on Aug. 23.

Heidi was a tough, compassionate socialist feminist who fought many battles during her 62 years — as a pioneer tradeswoman, defender of oppressed people, and revolutionary internationalist. Her final struggle, with early-onset Alzheimer’s, she faced with her characteristic grace and humor.

Wasting no time to make her mark. At a Seattle memorial on Oct. 11, her sister Guerry Hoddersen, International Secretary for FSP’s U.S. section, said that Heidi was a radical “almost from the womb.” Her parents, Anne and Eldon Durham, were pacifists, champions of civil rights and opponents of McCarthyism and the Vietnam War at a time and place where this was considered the equivalent of being a communist.

Heidi, the youngest of four children, was a teenager when her siblings began introducing her to the radical ideas of the 1960s. As a budding socialist, just before she turned 21, her life changed when she and nine other women entered Seattle City Light’s groundbreaking Electrical Trades Trainee (ETT) program.

Utility officials initiated an affirmative action program to burnish their image and hired FSP and RW co-founder Clara Fraser to implement it — a job Fraser took seriously. She also took seriously the bullying of City Light workers by then-Superintendent Gordon Vickery, and led nonunionized office workers in support for an 11-day union employee walkout.

Into this charged situation stepped the first U.S. women to make their way into the male-dominated and fairly segregated electrical trades. As workers’ anger over management’s high-handed treatment continued to boil, the trainees decided to back the walkout.

In retaliation, the training program was terminated and Fraser and the trainees were fired. They filed lawsuits and, by making community and labor support central to their struggle, won their cases, were rehired, and gained substantial back pay and damages.

The fights at the utility, which shook Seattle’s famously “liberal” city establishment to its core, launched Heidi’s career as a union activist with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). It also reinforced for her the importance of the leadership of women of color and of cooperation among oppressed people. She always stressed the solidarity of Black male co-workers in making life at City Light more bearable for the often-besieged tradeswomen.

Heidi’s early years at City Light changed her life in another way as well. Due in part to the male hazing she experienced on the job, she fell from an electrical pole and broke her back when she was 24. It took her months to recover, and the fall left her with a permanent measure of disability, but she fought management successfully to continue working in the field.

Says Heidi’s comrade and sister ETT Megan Cornish, “The striking thing is that Heidi didn’t let her accident and disability break her, as it would have someone who was not as fearless and determined as she was.” Heidi retired from City Light as a Senior Power Dispatcher, the utility’s top position, after a 30-year career.

Nothing working-class was alien to her. Heidi continued to wage war against ongoing discrimination at the utility as a leader of the Committee for Equal Rights at City Light (CERCL), but her entanglements with the Seattle establishment didn’t end there. She also helped to found the Ad Hoc Committee for Fair Employment and Open Housing in 1984, which organized grass-roots support to defend and strengthen local anti-discrimination laws. This resulted in the addition of people with disabilities as a protected group and the saving of protections on the basis of sexual orientation and political ideology.

Heidi’s impact as an FSP and RW leader was broad and deep. She provided political direction as a long-serving member of the party’s elected National Committee. She was a wiz at organizational finances and a frequent coordinator of conventions.

She wrote for the Freedom Socialist and authored two important position papers, The War on the Disabled: Adding Insult to Injury and, with Megan Cornish, Women Workers: Sparkplugs of Labor.

In 1991, Heidi teamed up with Yolanda Alaniz to represent FSP in a run for Seattle City Council seats. With a platform including a guaranteed annual income for the poor, an elected civilian review board over the police, and domestic partnership for all workers, Yolanda and Heidi were the first socialist Seattle candidates to win union endorsements.

In 1998, Heidi was part of a coalition that tried to defeat a state initiative repealing affirmative action; a year later, she took on the corporate globalizers as part of planning for the game-changing Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization.

Heidi’s passion to better the lives of workers and the poor was international in scope. She was a key organizer of the 1997 International Feminist Brigade to Cuba, a joint project of RW and the Federation of Cuban Women. The joy and pride of the Cuban people in their revolution made a lasting impression on her, one she spoke about frequently.

A remarkable send-off for a remarkable warrior. The respect and warmth that political colleagues, fellow unionists, family and friends universally felt for Heidi shone through brightly at the standing-room-only memorial in her honor.

The celebration of her life featured songs, poetry, and heartfelt and funny tributes. It was held on Oct. 11 at New Freeway Hall, home of Seattle FSP and Radical Women, where Heidi’s infectious laugh had so often filled the room — and where her beautiful, colorful artwork hung for the memorial. Comrades attended from the East Coast and from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland, Ore.

Heidi’s siblings, FSP National Committee member Stephen Durham and Sukey Wolf, recounted stories of how as a youngster Heidi had taken their side — whether waiting after school for them when they were punished or accompanying her brother to his draft board hearing during the Vietnam War. “Heidi always showed up,” said Stephen.

At left in back, Heidi with close family friend Vern Decker on her right. To her left, her grandparents and siblings Sukey Wolf (in front), Guerry Hoddersen, and Stephen Durham.

Among the other speakers were Lou Walter, business manager for IBEW Local 77, and Jeff Johnson, a City Light crew chief. A common theme for all the speakers, whether sibling, co-worker or comrade, was Heidi’s loyalty and unflagging support. (Find tributes to Heidi here.)

The event closed with toasts from the audience and, fittingly, “The International,” the anthem of the world working class. Heidi’s confidence in her class and her optimism for humanity’s future never wavered. Neither will the admiration that so many people felt for her, people whose lives she touched and made better.

Remembrances for Heidi may be sent to the Pioneer Tradeswomen Publication Fund at www.RedLetterPress.org.

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