Richard M. Pfeffer

by Tony Holtzman, M.D.
Richard M. Pfeffer, scholar, lawyer, and political activist, died of prostate cancer on May 20, 2002. Ric came to Baltimore as Associate Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins in 1969. To learn more about factory work, he took a year off from Hopkins and got a job as a $4-an-hour forklift operator. He recorded his observations and conclusions in Working for Capitalism (Columbia University Press, 1979). "While in the factory," he wrote in the Epilogue, "I chose, as I have in the university, to test the limits of certain dominant institutions. I used myself as a probe to explore our system."

His probing cost him his job in both the factory and the university. As one who did not teach what the system demanded—he was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam war and of hypocrisy on and off campus—Pfeffer was denied tenure by Johns Hopkins despite protests by students and faculty. During his stay he was twice chosen by graduating students to speak at commencement.

After leaving Hopkins, Ric again used himself a probe. He chose to work as an attorney for the U.S. Department of Labor. Having experienced working conditions first hand, he had written in Working for Capitalism, "the poor performance record and political constraints placed on the operation of agencies like the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration [OSHA] are nothing less than a typical capitalist scandal."

Remarkably, Ric was able to strengthen OSHA regulations to protect workers from exposure to several potentially toxic substances and to improve sanitation facilities for farm workers. One of his colleagues at the Labor Department told the Baltimore Sun "Hundreds of workers go home safe and healthy every night because of his work."

Ric had no illusions about the difficulty of changing the system. As many commented at the memorial service at Stony Run Friends Meeting on May 28, he worked passionately and intensely for what he believed right. Society's destination, he wrote, "must be of our own conscious, active, and collective creation. Mere onlookers will not arrive."

Friends of Ric have established The Ric Pfeffer Memorial Lecture Series. Tax-deductible contributions (designated for the Series) can be made payable to Research Associates Foundation and sent to 1443 Gorsuch Avenue, Baltimore MD, 21218.

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This story was published on June 5, 2002.