Feminist, Labor Advocate, Social Economist, Worker Rights Advocate, Optimist
July 10, 1952 May 1, 2005
Jan Stackhouse believed in people, and she believed that people could make a difference.
She believed she could make a difference. Jan committed her life to helping others find the power and voice to bring about positive change, whether in the workplace or in their personal lives. Her strong belief in making a difference laid the foundation for a lifetime of public service that continued until her death on May 1, 2005 near Stockbridge, MA.
Jan Stackhouse was born in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1952, the first of three daughters of a US Foreign Service couple. She grew up in Lebanon, Libya, Washington DC and Israel, where she attended high school. After graduating from Indiana University with a degree in comparative literature, Jan moved with her then-husband to New Haven, CT where he was to begin graduate studies at Yale. Jan took a job as a book department clerk at the Yale Coop, and it was there in 1975 that her life took an eventful turn. Dissatisfied with low wages and capricious management, Jan and her fellow employees organized themselves into Local 1173 of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union; Jan’s union card identifies her as Member No. 2. It was one of the first college stores in the country to become unionized.
The experience was transformative, giving shape and focus to her innate optimism and urge for social justice. Jan threw herself into the labor movement, and in short order, the women’s movement as well: she helped unionize other workplaces, organized a women’s center and a shelter for victims of domestic violence, and became active in many community organizations. She also teamed up with progressive media producers and began documenting the painful demise of Connecticut’s factory-based economy in the late 70s and early 80s, under the pressure of forces that two decades later would be called globalization.
The culmination of this phase of her life was The Brass Workers History Project. Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and other institutions, The Brass Workers History Project involved Jan, a local media producer and a labor historian in a four-year effort to to tell the story of the rise and fall of a prototypical American industrial region, the Naugatuck River Valley in western Connecticut. This region had been the worldwide center of copper and brass manufacturing for over a hundred years, but was in decline when Jan and her partners began telling its story through oral history interviews, in-depth journalism and archival research. The results were
Brass Valley, a video documentary aired on Connecticut Public Television in 1984 and later distributed by the Cinema Guild, and a book of the same name (still in print) published in 1983 by Temple University Press.
In 1984, Jan moved to New York City, to try her skills in a more challenging arena and to formalize the managerial talent she was developing. She was accepted into the MBA program at New York University, graduated in 1987 and took a job with the New York State Department of Economic Development under Governor Mario Cuomo. Her focus there for the next ten years would be employee ownership as a strategy for worker empowerment and job retention.
Though the program was a success, Jan was ousted in an agency reshuffle under Governor Pataki, and she joined a consulting firm as its director of marketing, where she stayed until 2002. When an opportunity to go back to the labor movement appeared, Jan leapt at it, becoming Director of Membership of SEIU Local 1199, the Hospital and Health Care Workers Union. At the time, she was one of a relatively small number of union officials who had an MBA and substantial experience in both the public and private sectors. Jan reshaped and streamlined dues collection, record keeping, member services and other functions in the 237,000-member union. In addition, with the mixture of supportive concern and managerial acumen that was her professional trademark, she succeeded at motivating her growing staff and creating new career possibilities for them.
1199 was beginning to reap the fruit of Jan’s effort when it was cut short by her death on Sunday, May 1, 2005. She had been spending the weekend at a friend’s house in the Berkshires, and went for a walk alone. Shortly afterward she was found dead near the roadside, apparently killed by an assailant whose identity is still unknown.