Howard Deck, pioneering and beloved union leader, 70

Howard Deck, a pioneering labor-union leader, died Feb. 15 of a heart attack. He was 70.

Deck, a native of Reading, began the first union for employees of the University of Pennsylvania libraries and served as its president for more than four decades.

Deck, who attained his bachelor’s degree in English from Albright College, where he conducted the school’s Youth Orchestra, began working at Penn’s Towne Scientific Library in 1965.

Deck and other library support staff, frustrated with the lack of medical benefits and low salaries — for which a university administrator told them to use “Christian prayer” to improve — began the process to organize a union in 1968, which was chartered by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees one year later.

In a retrospective piece Deck wrote for the union on its 25th anniversary, he recalled the strength he had to muster the day his boss learned of the successful effort.

“I will never forget my supervisor at the end of that day standing in front of my desk shaking with rage, tears streaming down her face, demanding to know if I knew what I had done,” he wrote. “I informed her that we knew exactly what we were doing and that the days of playing off individual employees against each other were over.”

Local 590 signed its first contract in July 1969, and Cathy Scott, president of AFSCME District Council 47, of which Local 590 was a member, said Deck’s leadership at the university enhanced opportunities for all employees, even those who weren’t members of Local 590 or Local 54, which represents the university’s Dining Services employees.

“Local 590 had a tremendous impact on the University of Pennsylvania’s general-personnel policies,” Scott said. “It’s a non-union environment, except for those two locals, but I think Howard was able to bring a recognition that staff had rights, even though they may not have been represented by the union. Overall, it made the University of Pennsylvania more sensitive to employee issues that would not have been there if it hadn’t been for Howard and his negotiating for those two locals.”

State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-7th Dist.) told the Philadelphia Daily News that Deck’s leadership proved invaluable to his own experience as an employee of the Penn libraries in the 1970s.

“He was an incredible labor leader, and a great, decent and kind human being,” Hughes said. “When I was at Penn, we were the highest-paid university-library employees in the country, thanks to Howard.”

Deck left Penn in 1982 to become a representative for DC 47, where Scott said he was an exemplary leader.

“He was a very strong negotiator, but he also had tremendous mediating skills,” she said. “So he worked very effectively with federal mediation in finding ways to come up with the win-win in contract negotiations.”

Scott noted that Deck was particularly skilled at encouraging collaboration in labor negotiations.

“Howard was a very calming influence. He could usually find a way to come up with a compromise that would satisfy all parties,” she said. “I think his knowledge and just his general skill at being able to bring everybody together and feel as though their issues were being heard and addressed were really his greatest strengths.”

Outside of work, Deck, who served as stage manager at the Theater of Living Arts shortly after moving to Philadelphia in the ’60s, was an avid theatergoer and particularly enthusiastic about opera — hobbies Scott said she’s enjoyed enlightening his colleagues about at an otherwise sad time.

“I’ve gotten a lot of responses from people who are amazed at how broad Howard’s interests were,” Scott said. “A lot of people didn’t know how interested he was in the arts and in music, so having the opportunity to share that with people who really didn’t know how many parts there were to him has been really nice. This has been a great loss to me personally as well as to the union. He’s going to really be missed by all of us.”

Deck is survived by his longtime partner, Marvin Brown.

A memorial service was held March 11 at the American Friends Service Committee Hall.

Memorial donations can be made in Deck’s name to the William Way LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce St., Philadelphia, PA 19107; American Friends Service Committee, 1515 Cherry St., Philadelphia, PA 19102; or Bartram’s Garden Annual Fund, 54th Street and Lindbergh Boulevard, Philadelphia, PA 19143.

Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].