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THE BLUE collars of labor and the bow ties of theater might seem a strange mix, but Buffalo playwright Manny Fried has been bringing them together since the late 1960s.

"My plays are about people who happen to be in labor," Fried says.

"I think that the fact that I have a definite point of view gives an inner strength. A strong conviction is essential in writing a good piece of work."

Today in Washington, D.C., Fried is being awarded the AFL-CIO's Joe Hill Award for his efforts to further the cause of workers through his art.

"For years he's been our leader on the arts in the organization," says George Wessel, president of the AFL-CIO in Buffalo. "He's deserved recognition."

Fried's productions have played to warm reviews in Toronto, Los Angeles and off-Broadway.

In 1968, "The Dodo Bird" opened off-Broadway to this response by a New York Times critic: "Most plays smell like other plays; some smell like life. 'The Dodo Bird' falls into the second welcome category."

Fried remembers opening night when "people got up and shouted 'Bravo' " at the close of the play, which explores a man's loss of self-respect when his skills in a factory become obsolete.

But it took Fried another 13 years to stage a production -- "Elegy for Stanley Gorski" -- in a downtown Buffalo theater. He attributes local reluctance to stage his work to directors and producers who don't want to better the image of working people.

"Since I write about working people, it's difficult to get my plays shown," he said. "But we're beginning to develop a local climate. We're beginning to get local recognition."

"The Dodo Bird," "Drop Hammer" and other short plays were performed locally during the '80s in places like the Center Theater, Buffalo Entertainment Theater and Nietzsche's.

Fried has also had an impact on the local theater community through his Western New York Playwrights' Workshop.

"Almost every playwright now writing in Buffalo has been affected firsthand by the workshop or touched by it in other ways," News critic Terry Doran wrote in a story about Fried's workshop.

Fried, who was born in Brooklyn but moved to Buffalo at age 6, taught at Buffalo State College from 1971 until his retirement in 1983. He is an organizer of the Labor in Literature contest, sponsored by the AFL-CIO. This contest gets union members -- machinists, teachers, auto workers -- to write about their experiences.

It's impossible to call Fried's convictions anything but strong.

His career in union organizing began in 1939, when he brought fellow employees of the Cheektowaga Curtiss-Wright aircraft plant into the United Auto Workers.

He continued organizing activities after he returned from serving in World War II, and was an outspoken union leader until he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1954 and 1964.

At those hearings, he refused to answer allegations he was a communist. And he challenged the constitutionality of the committee.

Afterwards, he said he was forced out of the union movement and blacklisted from several jobs he was seeking in the insurance industry. He also charges that the government interfered with publication of his novels.

"I was very bitter when I was forced out of labor," he said.

But Fried is not filled with bitterness.

"I'm much more tolerant and much more tactful, not as fierce in my condemnation," he says. "I look for what's good. I'm not so sure I'm right, as I used to be."

He also welcomes today's recognition.

"It's a feeling you've contributed something, that it wasn't all for nothing."

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