- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Rich Klimmer spent his working years as a hard-nosed union organizer. In retirement, he was coaxed into the gentler exercise of writing about his job at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in Washington.

Now, the life he wrote about is taking shape onstage.

Mr. Klimmer and his lifelong friend, Lonnie Carter, won a playwriting contest organized by a Minnesota theater. Their collaborative work will be performed tomorrow at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis.

It was Mr. Carter who proposed entering the competition, which requires a professional playwright to collaborate with someone outside theater. Mr. Carter, a playwright for 35 years and a teacher at New York University, suggested the pair write a play based on Mr. Klimmer’s work at the teachers union.

“My immediate response was, ‘You’re nuts. This will never work’,” said Mr. Klimmer, who retired in January after 25 years with the 1.3 million-member union.

But they submitted a three-page synopsis outlining the play they wanted to write and bested a field of 100 teams of writers to win the annual contest and $2,500.

“It seemed to be the most compelling project based on what Rich and Lonnie could bring to the table, and there’s something interesting about Rich’s history,” said Polly Carl, producing artistic director at the Playwrights’ Center.

The play, called “Organizing Abraham Lincoln,” takes place at fictional Abraham Lincoln University but is based on Mr. Klimmer’s efforts to organize hundreds of graduate students at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Graduate students there began a union drive in 1998 over frustration with low pay and substandard health care.

The labor at Temple has significance because it was among the first in a wave of post-secondary schools where graduate students began pressing for higher pay as universities increasingly relied on them to teach undergraduate courses.

Attorneys for Temple argued graduate students did not have the same rights as other workers at the state school because their jobs were part of their education.

When the graduate students voted in March 2001 to affiliate with the teachers union — by a vote of 290-16 — it was the first referendum of its kind in Pennsylvania.

Mr. Klimmer, 62, got involved in the union effort at Temple after it took root. He arrived in January 2001 as the campaign director.

“It was supposed to be a one-day meeting. We were looking for a way to get things moving,” he said.

Mr. Klimmer was involved loosely with the Temple graduate students before 2001, but then he became a daily presence, said Rob Callahan, a graduate student and teaching assistant at Temple during the union drive.

“We had a situation where we had a lot of idealistic people with a lot of energy and zeal, none of whom had ever been involved in a situation like the one we were in. Rich was able to bring wisdom to a rag-tag operation,” said Mr. Callahan, who now works as an union organizer for the AFT.

Mr. Klimmer wrote at his apartment in Washington’s Adams Morgan section, and Mr. Carter wrote at his home in Connecticut. They exchanged scenes via e-mail.

They finished their first draft June 30 and have been in Minneapolis since July 10 for rehearsals in preparation for tomorrow’s performance.

Professional actors will perform a staged reading of the play — not a full production — for an audience of more than 100, including directors and artistic directors from across the country who will evaluate the performance to determine whether they want to stage it at their own theaters, Ms. Carl said.

“I think someone will pick it up. It’s a producible play, and there’s something incredibly moving about it,” she said.

A contingent of former graduate students who were involved in the labor movement also plan to show up, including Mr. Callahan, who said he is glad Mr. Klimmer wrote about the struggles to form a union at Temple.

“We knew we were in the midst of an adventure,” he said.

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