For decades, Gillian Furst organized strategic meetings out of her living room, offering rank-and-file workers a safe haven from corporate oversight and a vision for the future of the labor movement.
She would gently lend her ear to every person in attendance, but could be a vigorous taskmaster while leading the charge for change, friends said. Furst, an international union, civil and women’s rights activist, was instrumental in founding the Minnesota chapter of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), responsible for stomping out a wave of corruption across the Teamsters union and making sweeping reforms for workers’ rights. She died July 20 of an apparent stroke. She was 81.
“She was the sparkplug that showed people you don’t have to sit back and take it; you could change it,” said Doug McGilp, friend and fellow Local 1145 Teamster. “Her name isn’t that well known, but it should be.”
Furst, a British citizen, was born in 1933 in Lahore, then a part of India under British control. She followed in the footsteps of her labor activist grandmother and father, a British civil servant and supporter of Indian independence, after moving to England at age 11.
She went on to graduate from the London School of Economics before getting arrested in her first act of civil disobedience during a peaceful protest in support of nuclear disarmament. A judge jailed her for 30 days after Furst refused to pay a piddly 5-pound fine.
Advocacy became more than a hobby when Furst, a socialist, was named secretary of her Labor Party branch at BBC-TV, where she produced exposés on injustices for a current affairs program. In 1970, the BBC sent Furst to the U.S. to capture the mood after four students at Kent State University were killed protesting the Vietnam War.
She tracked down a New York journalist named Randy Furst for help finding sources. He opened his Rolodex for her, along with his heart. The couple relocated to Minneapolis the next year with her three children from her first marriage, and wed during Randy’s lunch break, between newspaper assignments.
In Minneapolis, Gillian Furst grew entrenched in the causes of civil rights, women’s rights, American Indian and gay rights. She advocated fiercely for all marginalized groups and fought tooth and nail for the underdog.
During the 1970s, Furst helped send buses of women to Springfield, Ill., for a rally to support the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. No task was too small for Furst, who volunteered to do grunt work for the Twin Cities branch of the National Organization for Women.
“She [did] jobs that some people might think she was overly qualified for, but she wanted to be right alongside the workers,” said former local NOW President Sue Abderholden.
Eventually Furst, determined to advance the cause of labor, took a job on a Honeywell assembly line making thermostats. She was quickly elected to the union shop committee, where she filed hundreds of grievances and tirelessly waged contract battles on behalf of workers.
As her involvement deepened, Furst was elected to the TDU international steering committee in 1990, playing a key role in getting reform delegates elected to the Teamster convention. With nerves of steel, she stood unwavering amid a sea of dissent to successfully nominate Diana Kilmury, the Teamsters’ first woman international vice president.
Her honesty and forthrightness made her a prime appointment for the union’s first Ethical Practices Committee a few years later.
“If it wasn’t going to be me, my very next choice was Gillian,” Kilmury said. “She was simply a person you could not snow or bribe in any way. And smart as a whip.”
It was a role Furst would endure much abuse for from opponents, but friends and colleagues said she handled it humbly, with an acerbic wit that deflated egos.
Well after her retirement, Furst’s home remained an unofficial headquarters for workers and those wishing to commemorate the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strike, for which she helped plan regular anniversaries.
“I don’t think there was a meeting that wouldn’t end with her pumping her fist and saying ‘We have to act now!’ ” said Chris Serres, a fellow collaborator and an investigative reporter at the Star Tribune.
In addition to her husband, Furst is survived by her three children, Lynn Adam, Pippa Carlson and Harry Furst; three grandchildren and relatives overseas. A memorial meeting will be held Aug. 29 at 1 p.m. at the East Side Freedom Library, 1105 Greenbrier St., St. Paul.