October 10, 2023 • The Communicator Oct -Nov – Dec 2023 • By Fred Bruning, The Communicator
Kurt Freeman, a skilled labor professional who led Local 14-M, Philadelphia, and District Council 9 before assuming duties as GCC/IBT president in 2019, will retire next month and pass leadership responsibilities for the new Printing Packaging & Production Workers Union of North America to another labor movement stalwart, Secretary-Treasurer/Vice President Steve Nobles.
Announcing his decision in August at the first PPPWU convention, Freeman said it had been an “honor” to serve and that he believed the union had a promising future but acknowledged the organization – and its new leaders – faced unprecedented challenges.
For more than a year, Freeman and Nobles have been contending daily with an abrupt move by Teamster leadership to scuttle the 2004 merger agreement that formed the GCC/IBT and demand the union surrender autonomy or be ousted from the Teamster realm.
GCC/IBT leaders said the conditions were untenable, pursued legal remedies, denounced Teamster attempts to raid local unions and reorganized as the PPPWU. “We’re not going anywhere,” Freeman promised.
Convention delegates offered Freeman a standing ovation for his guidance through difficult times before electing Nobles to the top union job by acclamation and elevating DC-2 secretary-treasurer Clark Ritchey to the PPPWU’s second spot on a part-time basis.
Nobles said protecting union independence and countering IBT “union-busting” tactics would be top priorities. “We have to meet this head-on in defense of our members,” he said.
Freeman leaves the top union post with a solid record of success built on strong financial stewardship and an emphasis on organizing.
Under Freeman’s leadership, the union recruited a national organizer, Alejandro Guzman, launched a series of video conference organizing workshops during the covid pandemic that continue on a regular basis and observed strict policies of fiscal discipline.
Freeman, 65, became GCC/IBT president upon the retirement in 2019 of George Tedeschi, who now holds the title PPPWU president emeritus, and after serving two years as secretary-treasurer/vice president following the retirement of Robert Lacey.
Over the course of his union career, Freeman developed a deep interest in pension matters and was a trustee of two national pension programs and the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. He also served as chairman of a Philadelphia-based health, welfare and retraining program.
Philadelphia colleagues hold Freeman in high regard.
“Kurt understood that the union was about lifting up the members and always promoted ‘union pride’ on the shop floor,” said John Potts, who became president of Local 14-M, Philadelphia, when Freeman left to assume duties as GCC/IBT secretary-treasurer/vice president in Washington, D.C. “He was a skilled and knowledgeable negotiator who always was honest and straight forward with the members in any and all situations.”
Among DC-9 colleagues, Freeman was known as a stalwart ally, Potts said. “Officers always knew Kurt had your back, whether on a picket line or in heated contract negotiations. His leadership abilities gave confidence to the union membership.”
Peter Leff, PPPWU general counsel, denounced Teamster efforts to cast doubt on Freeman’s integrity as a means of persuading members to align with the IBT. “Kurt Freeman is the most upstanding and moral a union leader as anyone could want,” Leff said. “He always puts the interest of members before his own.”
Freeman, a graduate of Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey, is married to Theresa A. “Terry” Freeman, a professor in the department of orthopaedic research, Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia. Married 41 years, the Freemans have two adult sons.
Announcing his retirement, Freeman told convention delegates in Las Vegas he had confidence the union would prevail and that Nobles would “serve with distinction.” Freeman added: “I feel good about our future.”
Nobles brings decades of union experience to the PPPWU presidency.
After going to work at Bland Printing, Detroit, as a bindery assistant in 1985, Nobles served as a steward in GCIU Local 20-B, which later merged with 289-M. He was elected to the executive board, became a part-time organizer and rose to the 289-M presidency.
Nobles helped lead a move to merge 289-M with Local 2-C in 2002. He served as vice president of the merged local, became president two years later when 2-289-M affiliated with District Council 3. Nobles was elected president of DC-3 and subsequently became secretary-treasurer/principal officer.
He was named to the GCC/IBT general board in 2016 and, when Freeman moved from GCC/IBT secretary-treasurer/vice president to the union presidency in 2019, Nobles became Freeman’s replacement.
In addition to his work for the GCC/IBT, Nobles served as president of the Michigan and Northwest Ohio Allied Printing Trades Council and as a trustee for the Joint Pension Trust Fund and TMRP retirement plan.
“His record of service is outstanding,” Tedeschi said at the time.
Nobles comes from a family committed to organized labor.
His mother was recording secretary at Local 20-B, his stepfather served on the local’s executive board and Nobles’ father was a shop steward at an A&P supermarket warehouse.
Nobles’ wife, Beth, worked in the pension office of Local 13-N, Detroit, until retirement. Married for 11 years, Steve and Beth Nobles each have two daughters from previous marriages.
In Las Vegas, Nobles, 64, said he might have retired at this point in his career but felt duty-bound to serve the PPPWU in its formative stages and help withstand attempts by the IBT to undercut the new union.
The PPPWU’s strength is in the determination of leaders and members to assure success no matter the challenges, Nobles said. “They have the heart to get this done.” — Fred Bruning