Tribute to NUJ member Mitzi Bales

  • 16 Aug 2021

With the passing of Mitzi Bales, who died in May at the age of 93, the NUJ book branch has lost its most remarkable and best-loved activist.

Mitzi was one of five sisters born and raised in Wheeling, West Virginia, during the Great Depression. Their parents kept a store and, even though money was tight, tried to help their impoverished local community. Mitzi’s strong sense of solidarity against social injustice stemmed from these early experiences.

After majoring in journalism at West Virginia University, Mitzi went on to Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labour Relations. Thereafter her career always combined journalistic work and trade unions in one way or another.

After spells in Tokyo and Brussels, Mitzi moved to Washington, DC, to work for the Washington Post, and then to New York City. Finally she moved to London to work for a union as newsletter editor, and though she continued to travel for interest, London was her home for the rest of her life.

Mitzi joined the NUJ in 1968 and, having found her way into book publishing, where unionisation was developing rapidly, became a founder member of the book branch in 1973. She remained an essential part of the branch’s infrastructure for the rest of her life, occupying most branch offices at one time or another - except Treasurer, for which she declared herself dangerously unqualified.

From her time starting a chapel at Aldus Books to her last staff job at HarperCollins, she was a mainstay of grassroots union organisation.

When she eventually went freelance, and much of her union activity moved to branch level, her sociable and empathetic personality made her brilliant at chapel liaison work.

The 1970s and ‘80s saw many fierce battles for trade union rights. Mitzi was always up for solidarity work and picket line attendance, putting in early-morning stints on the suburban Grunwick picket line, or visiting in her lunch-hour if the dispute was in central London.

One of the hardest-fought struggles in the NUJ’s books sector was the series of three strikes between 1979 and 1992 in defence of trade union recognition at Robert Maxwell’s Pergamon Press in Oxford – the first two being the only strikes ever won against this notorious bully. Mitzi was steadfast in her support, often turning up unexpectedly just when the NUJ strikers were most in need of sustenance and encouragement.

Mitzi was also active in the wider union. She served for many years on the appeals tribunal, where she is remembered as diligent, committed and always seeking to be fair to all parties. She was also an elected trustee of NUJ Extra from 2014 to 2020, and was valued there as compassionate but level-headed in casework, but also as an enthusiastic informal fund-raiser.

In 1999 Mitzi became a member of honour of the NUJ. She had contributed richly in her 30 years of membership, but still had 20 years of service to give.

Outside of her NUJ work, Mitzi had a rich political and cultural life. A life-long socialist and internationalist, she was an active supporter of Musicians for Peace and Disarmament, helping to promote their concerts. She loved travel, art and design, and read voraciously.

She liked beautiful things, but felt no need to own them long term – her distinguished collection of studio pottery was eventually presented to the Paisley Museum.

Perhaps Mitzi’s most outstanding feature was her gift for friendship. People were immediately drawn to her liveliness, warmth and interest in them, and once in her circle, usually remained in touch.

She is much missed and will be remembered with love by her family in the USA, her NUJ colleagues, and her myriad friends in the UK and across the world.

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