The Assembly Labor Committee started off the year with a leadership shakeup when former Assembly Member Latoya Joyner abruptly resigned just days into 2024. While the election for her replacement is coming up on Feb. 13 in the Bronx, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie selected Assembly Member Harry Bronson of Rochester to take over the influential committee Joyner had chaired.
Bronson represented a break from the norm when it came to the committee chair. He’s the first upstate member to head the committee in over a decade. And three of the past four chairs – including Heastie before he became speaker – were even more specifically from the Bronx, leading to the speculation that Heastie would turn to his home borough again. In the upper chamber, state Sen. Jessica Ramos of Queens chairs the Labor Committee. Before her was former state Sen. Diane Savino of Staten Island, so New York City has dominated the labor committees in the recent past.
But Bronson got his start working on labor issues and has deep ties to unions statewide. He spoke with City & State about his new position, his history with the labor movement and his role as a rare upstate chair. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was your reaction when you learned the speaker had chosen you as Labor Committee chair? And was it something you had been hoping to get if it opened up?
I was thrilled when the speaker selected me and appointed me to the position as chair of labor. It’s an area that I have worked in for many years of my life. And the speaker knew I was interested for a while. And it’s going to give me an opportunity to do a lot of the work that I was kind of doing as chair of (the) economic development (committee). And that is, when I took over three years ago as chair of economic development, we kind of shifted the focus so it included workforce development, and it included making sure that when we looked at investments and policy decisions, were we making decisions that would lead us to a more equitable and inclusive economy. So as chair of labor, that work will continue. There are a lot more workforce development opportunities under the purview of this committee.
You’re the first upstate Labor Committee chair in quite some time. How will that affect your approach to the committee since you’re coming in with that different experience from your predecessors and your state Senate counterpart?
The prior chair of the Labor Committee from upstate New York was Assembly Member Susan John. She was from Rochester, I currently represent the district that Assembly Member Susan John represented. Susan was a personal friend of mine. Susan brought me actually to the Assembly as counsel to the Labor Committee. I was counsel to the Labor Committee from 2004 until 2010 when I resigned so I could seek the current position I’m in. My background is in labor law. Prior to coming to the Assembly as counsel to the committee, I was an attorney with a law firm, I was a partner at a law firm that only represented unions, employee benefit funds and individual employees. This is the focus of my legal career and being chair of the Labor Committee will continue that focus.
Do you think that upstate labor issues have gotten the attention they deserve in the past, or do you see an opportunity as the new chair to highlight issues that haven’t been at the forefront?
So 14 years ago was the last time there was an upstate labor chair. That was my predecessor, Susan John. Prior to that, it was many, many years prior to that. So historically, an upstate member has not been appointed to this position. I don’t really know the reason for that, and that’s the historical reality. But I knew that the speaker knew my interest, the speaker knew that I was a workers rights guy. I’m very much a workers rights person. As I’ve said to many people, I’m labor through and through. So I think the speaker recognized that, and also recognized that I have a very, very good working relationship with the various unions and workers rights organizations that are involved in state policymaking. Certainly coming from Rochester, it’s the upstate locals that I’m most familiar with. But the statewide unions, I’m very familiar with, both in my capacity as being counsel to the Labor Committee years ago, as well as as an Assembly member, even when I wasn’t chair.
What are some issues or policies you’re planning to focus on as you get settled into the new role? I know state Senate Labor Committee Chair Jessica Ramos just introduced a package of wage theft bills.
We had conversations about that during testimony at the joint budget hearing (on workforce development). Sen. Ramos and I have discussed some of those bills, and I will be introducing bills that are the same as bills that are in the Senate. Ironically, in 2010, as counsel to the Labor Committee, I was negotiating – Speaker (Carl) Heastie wasn’t speaker at the time – but Assembly Member Heastie had one of the first wage theft bills in the state. And I was negotiating that up until the point I resigned to run for office. So I’m very familiar with these issues. It is going to be very prominent. What you may know, there is a proposal in the governor’s budget that deals with liquidated damages in the wage theft act. The governor would like to get rid of liquidated damages on the failure to pay weekly payroll to manual workers. I’m not sure if that’s the right thing to do. But we’ll have discussions about that as we go forward.
Since you are coming in to chair the Labor Committee as the first upstater in some time, are there any upstate specific issues you’d like to tackle?
I think that in upstate, in particular – just because the opportunity is going to be there – as we move more towards a green economy, and more sustainable and renewable sources of energy, a lot of that work is going to be done in upstate New York. So we want to make sure that, two things, that we continue – and we’ve got a good record of it in the Assembly – we continue to insist that there are labor standards, labor protections, that are going to be a part of our movement toward how we incentivize renewable and sustainable energy. But beyond that, it’s important in upstate New York, as it is throughout the state, but we have pockets of very dense and deep poverty. And so we’ve got to make sure that as we transition to a green economy, and there’s emergent green jobs, that we develop programs that will bring folks in who are currently living in poverty so that they can seize upon those good-paying jobs.
For you, overall, it seems like this is a real return to your roots.
I think I’ve phrased it a couple of times like this: I feel like I’m home again.
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