Elissa and Neil were stalwarts of the Detroit left and the Detroit Solidarity branch. As this memorial for Elissa from Solidarity makes clear they were the iron links in a long, unbroken chain of a revolutionary working class . I first met them in the beginning days of the Detroit Newspaper strike in the mid-90’s and since been in many dozens meetings of all kinds with one, the other or both of them. They were militants cut from the finest revolutionary cloth.
When I first met Neil at an ACOSS meeting during the News strike he said with pipe in one hand the other extended in greeting, “Great, now I move to being the second most tattooed Trotskyist in Detroit.” Elissa’s tragic passing is a great loss to her family, friends and comrades. When we get there comrades it will be because of the life and work of Elissa, Neil and those like them. Elissa Karg Chacker, Presente!
Some members of Solidarity had known Elissa since the early 1970s. A native of Connecticut and student at Oberlin College, she came for a summer to Detroit to be an organizer for the United Farm Workers. She fell in love with the city, where she also met her life companion Neil Chacker, and never left. From the beginning, Elissa stood out in our political circle: she had a child at the age of 23, when no one else was even thinking about it.
Elissa and Neil were both dedicated socialists and rank-and-file trade unionists, as well as talented writers (Neil wrote the “Random Shots” humor column in Against the Current until his death from lymphoma in September, 2004). Elissa became an auto worker and was fired in the famous Mack Avenue Stamping sitdown strike of 1973, which was broken by a mobilization of UAW bureaucrats. She also worked for a time at Chevy Gear and Axle, the plant that later became American Axle, and spent some time on the picket line there this spring when workers were on strike.
In the 1970s and ‘80s Elissa worked on the staff of the IS newspaper, Workers’ Power, and the IS National Office. Much of her activism centered around women’s issues, particularly reproductive rights. In 1980 she authored an extremely successful pamphlet for Labor Notes called Stopping Sexual Harassment, one of the first union-oriented publications on the subject. She got a journalism degree from Wayne State University and was a gifted writer of fiction.
While working as a cartoonist on her high school paper, she was encouraged to develop her cartoons into a book, which became the short, ironic How To Be a Nonconformist. Originally published in 1967, How To Be a Nonconformist has just been reissued by Onzo Media. According to the Wikipedia entry, “With intricate pen-and-ink drawings and wry commentary, the book captures a unique period in American history, the era of flower children and anti-war demonstrations. Author Elissa Karg was 16 years old when the book was first published. A new introduction and author’s note focus on the relevance of nonconformity in today’s world.”
To a ‘60s idealist, today’s world seems sadder and scarier. The war in Iraq feels as unjust and as endless as Vietnam. We have a President even more bent on abusing power than Tricky Dick was. (Who could have imagined?) Cities like Detroit (where Elissa lives now) are falling apart. Good jobs are outsourced, and unions are forced to accept give backs. Poor people are isolated in dilapidated neighborhoods and their children attend crummy schools.
And yet every new generation spawns its own nonconformists.
“The little barefoot, singing hippies that march across the pages of Elissa Jane Karg’s recently republished book, How to be a Nonconformist, illustrate 23 playful steps to becoming a bona fide rebel. Karg’s advice, originally published as a comic-strip for her high school newspaper in the ’60s, mischievously elbows the counterculture of that time with tips like, ‘[a]void socks. They are the fatal give-away of a phony nonconformist.’
For the past quarter century Elissa worked as a nurse for homebound patients in Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park, where her skills in connecting with people as well as her professionalism were highly valued. Her commitment to the patients went way past responsbilities expected of her. Through her work she discovered unsung heroes and their talents. She drew out their life stories, learned from them and shared herself with them. She took an interest in their welfare well beyond their nursing care — for example, she brought them children’s books to encourage parents to read to their children.
Her fellow nurses who came to say goodbye to Elissa at the hospital remarked on how smart she was and on how consistently she would challenge management. As one manager confirmed, “When she raised her hand to speak at a meeting, we knew we were in for something.”
Committed for the Long Haul
Politically, in the last decade or so Elissa could be counted on to take on internal tasks for Solidarity — no matter how discouraged she became about the state of the world. She turned her artistic gifts to working on the re-design of Against the Current’s format, a project that remains in progress, and created many beautiful leaflets for Detroit Solidarity events. Her commitment was also expressed in working on Solidarity’s Midwest socialist-feminist retreats. Elissa’s house was the site of innumerable meetings and forums and she was always willing to house out-of-town guests for various Solidarity events. She volunteered to help with registration at Labor Notes conferences and at this year’s conference donated $1,000, anonymously.
As the widow of a Chrysler worker, she was overjoyed last fall when Chrysler assembly workers were turning down a concessionary contract, and saddened when the rebellion was contained.
Elissa did not use unnecessary words, but when she spoke she usually had an interesting take on events. There was just a little twist to what she had to say. This was as true in Solidarity meetings as in the mothers’ group she belonged to.
In addition to her daughters, Elissa is survived by her eight-year old granddaughter, Alisha Pitts, and her recent companion Tim Janssen. Contributions in her memory can be made to the Karmanos Cancer Center, 4100 E. John R, Detroit, MI 48201 or Center for Changes, 7012 Michigan Avenue, Detroit MI 48210.
It’s above all as a rock-solid friend that we will remember Elissa. She could absolutely be counted on to be there, generously, for her comrades and for her friends. Her death leaves a big hole in many people’s lives.
A memorial service will be held
for Elissa Jane Karg Chacker
January 5, 1951-May 11, 2008
on June 28, 2008 at 1PM
at the Roeper School’s upper campus
1051 Oakland Avenue
Birmingham, MI 48009