Russ Cain, a veteran Guild organizer and leader who ushered the union into the computer era, died Wednesday after a long battle with prostate cancer. He was 70.
Brother Cain died at 6:15 a.m., among family members, at his daughter’s home near Salinas after his final hospital stay.
A lover of classical music, he visited New York this summer despite his late-stage illness, and managed to attend one of his favorite operas, a production at the Met of Poulenc’s “Dialogues des Carmélites.”
He participated by videoconference in union meetings nearly until the end.
“Russ was our trusted confidant, invaluable resource and a wonderful voice of reason,” said Niesha Gates, president of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, the San Francisco-based Guild local which Russ helped create through a series of mergers.
Virtually every computer system, website and database throughout the Guild bears the Cain imprint one way or another. He was a one-man technology help desk for Guild officers. He set up the first computer network at the Guild headquarters on the East Coast at a time when few union officers knew what a computer network was.
Over the years, he helped design and launch countless websites, often paying for hosting fees out of his own bank account, helping any Guild local that asked for help. He created an innovative custom information management system nobody else could quite figure out.
“He did everything for everybody all the time, and without prejudice. And of course he was absolutely brilliant,” Steve Gann, a longtime friend and retired Montery Herald photographer, said Wednesday.
“The other thing that always amazed me about Russ – he had the stamina of 10 people. He’d eat one meal a day, have his coffee, and keep on going. He didn’t sleep very much that’s for darn sure,” Gann said.
He scoured independent websites for news items he thought would interest Guild members, which he distributed to his network of interconnected websites, orchestrating it all through a bank of computers crowded into his living room on the Monterey Peninsula.
He made a bowtie look militant. His sense of justice was fierce, and he fought hard on bargaining committees and on behalf of grievants. But his advocacy came with such a quiet competence that he won as much respect from the management as he did from the members.
Few Guild leaders, at any level, had greater impact while claiming less credit for it.
“He had no malice in him, no guile,” Bernie Lunzer, international president of The Newspaper Guild Sector of the CWA, said Wednesday. “In all the years I knew him I never heard him make fun of anyone or say anything bad about anyone.”
“Everyone relied on him,” Lunzer added, “and the thing is, he really never said no.”
In 1976, Brother Cain was awarded the union’s top honor, the Guild Service Award, after leading the organizing drive that created the Guild unit in Monterey. He worked at the Herald as a photographer, and carried a camera with him everywhere he went long after he left the newsroom.
Nominating him for the Service Award, Bill Ernst, then president of the San Jose Newspaper Guild, wrote a letter to headquarters in Washington, D.C., describing how Russ had been “the heart of the unit” in Monterey.
“Russ took the lead in the organizing,” Ernst wrote. “He set the tone, in his own soft-spoken disarming way, and then went out and signed up more Guild members than anyone from either the inside or outside. When a tough nut couldn’t be cracked, the word was, ‘Have Russ talk to him (or her).’ Russ got the card.”
He was the first unit chair at the Herald, and served two terms as president of the San Jose Guild, then a separate local that included members at the Mercury News as well as the Herald. In 1986, he was given the San Jose local’s top honor, the Sauliere Award.
He was part of countless organizing drives in his region, and was frequently “loaned” to other locals as well, in recognition of his value and dedication.
During any Guild controversy, he always joined the side that advocated building the union into something greater than before.
He was a principal architect of the merger four years ago of the San Jose and Northern California locals, which created the California Media Workers Guild. Another merger followed in 2011, combining the Hawaii and California locals into what is now called the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Once more, Cain was instrumental, behind the scenes, leading the technical work needed to craft new bylaws and office systems for one of the largest, most complex and diversified local guilds in North America.
He was a longtime international vice president representing the Western region in Washington, and was president of the Western District Council of the Guild for many years.
His friends and colleagues recalled his unflagging determination to defend good contracts through difficult times, a pragmatist driven by idealism to reach the best agreement possible.
He rarely gave the most stirring speeches, but when he spoke out, few in the room could argue his logic. Nobody questioned his sincerity.
“Russ was one of those people who gave so much to the Guild with very few people recognizing his contributions or even knowing who he was,” said Larry D. Hatfield, who served with Brother Cain on the Guild’s international executive board and “too many negotiating and other committees to count.”
“Unlike some of us, he was always quiet, courteous and even-keeled. But his contributions were enormous,” Hatfield wrote in an email Wednesday.
Darren Carroll, an international staff representative who worked with Russ on many projects, recalled him in a written note of appreciation as “a tenacious advocate” who “never sought recognition for the countless hours of his time that he volunteered for the Guild, both before and after his retirement.”
“In fact, Russ never retired; his volunteer work on behalf of the Guild never stopped or let up,” Carroll noted.
Carroll first worked extensively with Brother Cain when The Monterey County Herald was sold to Knight Ridder in 1997 – one of the early calamities in the sad recent history of the big-city newspaper industry.
“Knight Ridder canceled the Guild contract, fired everyone at the paper, and made workers reapply for their jobs. With that devastating act began a six-year fight to bargain a new contract – a fight that Russ led and eventually helped to win. Along the way, he helped his Herald co-workers achieve a measure of justice by forcing the company, through arbitration, to pay severance to every Guild employee who was fired,” Carroll noted.
Frank Sweeney, a retired Mercury News member who knew Brother Cain for nearly 40 years, recalled him as a quiet force at Guild conventions.
“Over the years I learned that Russ was always thinking two or three steps ahead of the other guy, whether it be in contract bargaining, contract enforcement, organizing or Guild politics,” Sweeney wrote in an email.
“I spent 20 years as secretary-treasurer of the San Jose Newspaper Guild, always believing Russ, who was a financial whiz, would have been better in that office. But he was 90 miles away in Monterey.
Along with his love of opera, Brother Cain had a passion for rail travel, and would go far out of his way to ride a train. He also built an elaborate model train system in the basement of his home in Carmel.
Sweeney recalled arriving a day early before a Guild convention in Vancouver in 1988, “so we could take a boat ride to a little town to the north and ride back on a train pulled by a steam locomotive.”
“The day after the Cleveland convention in 1983,” Sweeney noted, “Russ and I rode that city’s new trolley line just to see how it worked.”
His service typically included showing up early at whatever meeting it was, so he could make sure the projector and computers were working, even though he had been up half the night on some other Guild-related project.
Sweeney helped him produce a daily newsletter for delegates to the 1993 Guild Convention in Honolulu.
“We would stay up half the night in Russ’s hotel room writing stories about the convention, then Russ would design the layouts and spend the rest of the night watching a very slow rental printer run off 250 or so copies that were at the delegates’ seats the next morning,” Sweeney recalled.
The bylaws of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, which Brother Cain drafted and re-drafted during the Hawaii-California merger meetings, reflect some of the core traits of their principal author, and are part of his legacy.
Hardly flashy, they are found behind the front section of the website, a model of clarity, taking few words to accomplish a lot. They are the backbone of the organization.
By Carl T. Hall, Executive Officer, Pacific Media Workers Guild
June 12, 2013