Richard Trumka’s death last month marked a symbolic turning point for America’s labor movement. The third-generation coal miner, who led the AFL-CIO for 12 years, had long planned to pass the baton to his No. 2, Liz Shuler, and shortly after Trumka’s death, she became the first woman to lead the 12.5 million-member labor federation. Succeeding Shuler is Fred Redmond, the chair of the AFL-CIO Task Force on Racial Justice that launched last year. He is now the first Black person to serve as the AFL-CIO’s secretary-treasurer.
“Liz Shuler offers both strength and stability to our movement,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, herself a trailblazer as the first openly gay person to lead a national labor union, said in a statement. “As the largest member of the federation, the AFT is proud to support Liz to fulfill the remainder of Richard Trumka’s term as AFL-CIO president.”
In New York – where both Trumka and Shuler have been familiar faces – the labor movement is undergoing a similar shift, with more women and people of color filling important leadership roles. City & State’s New York City Labor Power 100 – researched and written in partnership with journalist Trevor Boyer – features the union chiefs, political staffers, worker rights advocates, activists, attorneys and others who make up the ever-evolving labor movement in the city.
Henry Garrido leads District Council 37, the largest public employee union in New York City, and its 150,000 members. So it’s somewhat fitting that in May, DC 37’s contract was the first of the city’s agreements with its municipal unions to expire, making it likely that whatever deal emerges from negotiations will set the tone for future accords. Amid that uncertainty and a historic budget crunch, Garrido reportedly backed a move toward a privately managed health care plan for retirees. When it became clear that Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams would win the Democratic mayoral primary, Garrido said, “Early on, District Council 37 put all of its weight behind Eric because we knew he was the essential workers’ champion – clearly, New Yorkers agreed.”
Representing about 128,000 active New York City teachers and other public school professionals, the United Federation of Teachers is one of the largest labor unions in the city. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, UFT President Michael Mulgrew has advocated effectively for his members’ safety. In 2020, he threatened a sickout if COVID-19 testing demands weren’t met. But just before the 2021 school year, he insisted to his members that even teachers with medical accommodations would not be working from home.
When then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo lost the support of New York City’s largest union, his resignation as governor soon followed. George Gresham, the longtime leader of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, has effectively leveraged the power of some 200,000 members in the city. His union is reportedly pushing hard for pay hikes in contract talks with downstate hospitals and nursing homes. With hundreds of thousands of members in other East Coast states, 1199SEIU is the country’s biggest health care union – making it a player on the national stage too.
This election cycle, Kyle Bragg threw 32BJ SEIU’s weight behind successful primary candidates for mayor, public advocate, Manhattan district attorney, three borough president contenders and 38 of the 45 City Council candidates in competitive races in which they endorsed. The 85,000 doormen, security guards, building cleaners and airport workers that Bragg represents joined other unions to help propel Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams to victory. In July, the union averted a strike and agreed to a new three-year contract for its workers at the three major New York City-area airports.
As the chair of the committee that handles legislation related to labor in New York, state Sen. Jessica Ramos is a key arbiter for policy changes that affect workers across the state. This year, the Queens lawmaker successfully pushed a $2.1 billion fund for workers, many of them undocumented, who were excluded from pandemic-related unemployment benefits. Ramos also sponsored a bill that cracks down on wage theft for construction workers.
Four decades ago, Gary LaBarbera decided to join a union. Since 2009, he has run the city’s Building and Construction Trades Council – and the Long Island native also became the president of the statewide chapter of the influential construction union when then-President James Cahill stepped aside last year. This year, LaBarbera celebrated the Port Authority’s deal with JFK Millennium Partners to construct a $3.9 billion new terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport starting in 2022, which is expected to create 4,000 jobs.
Harry Nespoli, who heads the union for the city’s thousands of sanitation workers – as well as the Municipal Labor Committee, which represents about 100 unions in New York City – has confronted numerous challenges during the coronavirus pandemic. The dramatic increase in people staying home nearly doubled the amount of garbage picked up by the New York City Department of Sanitation, which had to deal with $106 million in budget cuts before federal stimulus money led to the restoration of some services. On top of that, at least nine of “New York’s Strongest” perished from COVID-19. Additionally, coinciding with the installation of a new mayor in 2022, the union’s contract will be up for renegotiation.
Randi Weingarten is a leading voice on how public schools should respond to COVID-19, going on national television in August to express support for vaccine mandates for the teachers that she represents. “As a matter of personal conscience, we need to be working with our employers – not opposing them – on vaccine mandates,” Weingarten said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Weingarten, who has led the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers since 2008, previously was president of the United Federation of Teachers.
John Samuelsen moved up to lead the 150,000-member Transport Workers Union in 2017, but he hasn’t forgotten his roots. Samuelsen, who previously led TWU Local 100, which represents bus and subway workers in and around New York CIty, sits on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board. In July, Samuelsen became the first major union leader to come out against then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo due to sexual harassment allegations, and he called for Cuomo's resignation when the attorney general’s report on the matter was published. He has warned of logistical challenges to conducting weekly COVID-19 tests for unvaccinated MTA workers.
In the last legislative session, Assembly Labor Committee Chair Latoya Joyner pushed through three key worker-friendly measures. This includes the NY HERO Act, which establishes coronavirus-related workplace health and safety protections; the inclusion of a $2.1 billion fund for so-called “excluded workers” in the state budget; and a bill that handed construction managers the responsibility for wage theft by their subcontractors – not bad for a legislator who just this year took over the position in place of the outgoing incumbent Marcos Crespo, a fellow Bronxite.
Bronx native Christopher Shelton became a Communications Workers of America shop steward over 50 years ago. He worked his way up through the union’s ranks, serving as vice president of New York/New Jersey’s CWA District 1 before being elected president of the 650,000-strong national union in 2015. Now at the helm of the 140,000-member District 1 is Dennis Trainor, who played a role in New York City’s primary elections this summer with endorsements of city comptroller candidate Brad Lander and other successful candidates seeking seats in the City Council.
New York City’s labor unions aren’t always on the same page, with public- and private-sector unions often pursuing differing goals and with certain unions landing on either extreme of the political spectrum. Which makes it all the more remarkable whenever Vincent Alvarez is able to achieve policy goals or make endorsements by finding a middle ground through the New York City Central Labor Council, the city’s leading umbrella labor organization with 1.3 million members in 300 unions.
As a political force, the Hotel Trades Council punches above its weight class, as demonstrated by New York City Democratic mayoral nominee Eric Adams’ expression of gratitude to his first major endorser. “It’s important for us that we have someone in City Hall who has our back and we feel that Eric is that guy,” President Rich Maroko told NY1. With their industry still reeling from the damage done by the pandemic, hotel workers need all the help they can get.
As the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union since 1998, Stuart Appelbaum is one of New York’s longest-serving and most politically connected labor leaders. He has continued to battle Amazon since he helped scuttle its ill-fated HQ2 plans in Queens, playing a leading role in the ongoing unionization drive at one of the online retailer’s fulfillment centers in Alabama. Appelbaum is also executive vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and president of the Jewish Labor Committee.
As New York City’s transit system has become the subject of multiple acrimonious political debates, Transport Workers Union Local 100’s Tony Utano is focused on protecting his 41,000 members, many of whom kept the city’s subways and buses going during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Utano has come out in support of a new state policy requiring weekly testing for workers who don’t get a COVID-19 vaccine, and he has been outspoken in his calls for further action to make the subway system safer.
For a union with a long history in New York’s labor movement, it’s fitting that the third-generation Teamster Thomas Gesualdi has the reins. Gesualdi, who recently moved up the ranks to succeed George Miranda as president of Teamsters Joint Council 16, applauded the passage of a new worker protection measure, the NY Hero Act, and backed a proposed antitrust measure in Albany. Gesualdi remains the president of Teamsters Union Local 282, a union he joined in 1982 that represents construction workers in New York City and its surroundings.
In an effort to get students and teachers back in New York City classrooms safely, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a mandate for all public school teachers, administrators and staff to get vaccinated. Mark Cannizzaro, president of the Council of School Supervisors & Administrators, the union that represents principals, was less than thrilled about vaccinations and testing policies, calling them “subjects for collective bargaining.” That’s an area he knows well: For five years, the Staten Island native served as chief negotiator of the CSA.
The AFL-CIO is still dealing with the loss of longtime President Richard Trumka, who headed the nation’s largest federation of labor unions from 2009 until his sudden death this summer. As the national AFL-CIO gains a history-making leader Liz Shuler, Mario Cilento continues to lead the state’s organization and its 2.5 million members. Cilento sped up the resignation of then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo when he and other New York union chiefs signaled they would no longer support the embattled chief executive.
Amid speculation in August that New York City would mandate vaccines for its police officers, the response of New York City Police Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch was as forceful as it was predictable: We’ll sue. That came after 60 uniformed and civilian New York City Police Department employees had died after contracting COVID-19. Never one to hold his rhetorical fire, Lynch soon will get a new mayor to spar with as his union’s unsettled contract remains in arbitration.
Second-term Assembly Member Karines Reyes worked for years in hospitals in information management and as an oncology nurse, while also serving as a New York State Nurses Association union representative. That labor background has informed the Bronxite’s advocacy for workers’ rights and workplace safety, embodied most prominently by her sponsorship of the NY Hero Act, which requires state agencies to codify pandemic-related worker health and safety measures and mandates enforcement. She even returned to the front lines herself, serving as a nurse during the worst of COVID-19.
Term limits kept New York City Council Member I. Daneek Miller from running for another term this year, so he’ll have to find a new position come 2022. The world of organized labor is certainly one where he’s held sway. As a former 20-year Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus driver, Miller eventually became president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1056. Miller, who represents a union-heavy district in Southeast Queens, has chaired the council’s Civil Service and Labor Committee since 2014.
As commissioner of the New York City Office of Labor Relations, Renee Campion helps set the policies that affect its roughly 330,000 public employees. Since the beginning of the Bloomberg administration, Campion has been heavily involved in contract negotiations between the city and of its public employee unions. In July, the city required all its workers, including cops and teachers, to get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. “If employees refuse to comply, they just can’t be at work. And in fact, they will not be paid,” Campion told The Associated Press.
A decade ago, Bhairavi Desai founded the New York Taxi Workers Alliance as a counterweight to “taxi bosses,” who have traditionally been better organized. Since then, Desai has battled on behalf of taxi drivers in an industry in crisis, first with the rise of Uber and then with the arrival of COVID-19. Desai recently criticized the de Blasio administration’s $65 million bailout for indebted drivers as “a disgraceful betrayal from a city that already has blood on its hands.”
Brooklyn Assembly Member Peter Abbate Jr. chairs the chamber’s Governmental Employees Committee, which sets rules for the state’s public employees. In July, he helped pass a bill, currently awaiting Gov. Kathy Hochul’s signature, that would designate the state’s 911 dispatchers as first responders. Also in July, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill Abbate Jr. sponsored that prohibits bosses from penalizing public workers over absences related to COVID-19.
As chair of the state Senate’s Civil Service and Pension Committee, Sen. Andrew Gounardes oversees the movement of bills that affect the beneficiaries of the fourth-largest public pension plan in the U.S., comprising the five public pension funds in New York City. In June, the South Brooklyn Democrat introduced a bill, backed by 32BJ SEIU and District Council 37, that would protect insurers’ ability to create plans with tiered access to in-network status at a given hospital system.
In June, Brad Lander, a three-term New York City Council member from Brooklyn, won a tight Democratic primary election for city comptroller, all but ensuring him a new citywide perch come January. Backed by the influential Communications Workers of America District 1 and other unions, Lander has long pushed progressive causes such as minimum pay for delivery workers and expanded sick leave for gig workers. If elected, he’ll soon assume fiduciary responsibility for the five city-worker pension funds that cover 620,000 people.
In July, Nancy Hagans, already a board member of the New York State Nurses Association, beat back an insurgent faction vying for leadership of the state’s largest nurses’ union. At issue were the 40,000-member union’s leftward turn, including support for defunding the police and its often combative approach to negotiating with hospitals. The union is also run by Executive Director Pat Kane, who guided NYSNA through a pandemic as its members saved tens of thousands of lives – and notched a big win in June when then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law that requires hospital administrators to work with frontline nurses to set safe staffing levels.
As president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York, Andrew Ansbro represents about 9,000 New York City Fire Department firefighters. After encouraging his members to boycott the city’s July parade for essential workers because the COVID-19 crisis was still so deadly for firefighters, Ansbro went to bat for the roughly half of the union’s membership that remained vaccine-hesitant. “Personally, I don’t agree with a member’s decision to not get vaccinated, but it is a decision I’ll protect,” he told NY1.
Reelected in 2020 as the Uniformed Fire Officers Association’s leader, Jake Lemonda represented over 8,000 current and retired New York City Fire Department officers until his retirement on Sept. 1. Though he lost a bid last year to become general secretary treasurer of the broader International Association of Fire Fighters, the FDNY battalion chief continued to fight for his members. In May, he voiced support for a state measure that would ban flame-retardant chemicals in household items that can emit cancerous toxins when they burn. His union also backed Eric Adams for mayor.
Christopher Erikson, the longtime leader of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local No. 3, recently argued that New York City schools should install new heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems and solar energy panels as a means to improve air quality while creating good jobs for union workers in the city. During the delta variant surge in August, Erikson told his members that the public has a right to demand their electricians be vaccinated. “You should treat this virus like you would treat electricity,” he wrote. “Assume everybody and everything is ‘live.’”
As its business manager, Robert Bonanza leads the Mason Tenders, one of New York City’s Laborers’ union-affiliated construction worker unions. The union’s PAC was active in the 2021 New York City Democratic primaries, dropping $800,000 on candidates for mayor, City Council and borough president. One City Council endorsement from the Mason Tenders' PAC hinged on a candidate’s opposition to the development of the Bedford Union Armory, a nonunion project, PAC Director Mike McGuire told The City.
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In the face of efforts to downsize the New York City Police Department, Local 237 President Gregory Floyd is resisting calls to transfer over 5,000 unarmed school safety agents that he represents from the purview of the police department to that of the New York City Department of Education – let alone to remove them from schools altogether. Floyd, whose union also represents public-sector employees at entities such as from the New York City Housing Authority and NYC Health + Hospitals, is the recording secretary for the Teamsters’ metrowide Joint Council 16 as well.
Under Kate Shindle’s leadership, the Actors’ Equity Association has been a key voice in how to protect workers as Broadway theaters reopen. The union in July also made it dramatically easier for actors to join the union, which was once open only to theatrical actors who had worked for years amassing roles in professional productions. By now accepting anyone who has been paid as an actor or stage manager in the U.S., the 51,000-strong national union aims to diversify its ranks.
Michele Roberts’ plans to retire were postponed by COVID-19, but when she does step aside she’ll have left her mark on professional basketball. Since she took over as executive director of the New York City-based National Basketball Players Association in 2014, Roberts has helped empower basketball players, draw more attention to mental health and bring advocacy for social justice to the game. She also helped the league reach a 90% COVID-19 vaccination rate for players.
Though she has become a labor leader on the national level, Ai-jen Poo’s influence is still felt in the city where she rose to prominence. In July, the National Domestic Workers Alliance that she co-founded and still leads scored a big win: The New York City Council passed a law prohibiting the discrimination and wrongful termination of domestic workers, who number over 300,000 in the city, according to Council Member Debi Rose, who first introduced the legislation in 2018.
D. Taylor leads the New York-based Unite Here, with a national membership working in a key local industry: hospitality. Pre-pandemic, 66.6 million visitors dropped $47 billion in the city in a year. Since then, it’s been a struggle. This year, Taylor has been focused on big-picture campaigns to advance the working-class agenda, such as protecting voting rights and pushing for D.C. statehood. He’s also sounding the alarm about what happens if hotels decide they don’t need to clean rooms every day – 180,000 jobs could vanish.
Lori Ames in 2016 became national secretary-treasurer of Home Healthcare Workers of America, and on her watch female membership doubled in its parent organization, the International Union of Journeymen and Allied Trades, over four years. The Connecticut-based HHWA has 26,000 members in New York who were on the front lines of in-person elderly care during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, when hundreds of their ranks fell ill from COVID-19 and 11 died. She’s also president of the United Service Workers Union, which spans multiple states.
The New York film and TV production industry seems to have nailed its reentry from the COVID-19 shutdown. “We were able to put into place science-based protocols that help protect members while allowing them to continue working,” Rebecca Damon, the Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists executive vice president, told her members in January, even before vaccines were readily available. All that screening, testing and zoned access control paid off: By last month, Damon was claiming that industry employment in New York City was approaching pre-pandemic levels.
In 1983, Anthony Wells was hired as a caseworker for New York City’s child services administration, then known as the Bureau of Child Welfare. Nearly three decades later, in 2011, he was elected president of Social Service Employees Union Local 371, which represents 20,000 social service workers across city agencies. This year, the union joined a successful push for early retirement incentives for New York City municipal workers, which Wells touted to his members as a means to avoid layoffs.
With the ranks of New York City’s correction officers dwindling as the jail population increased by half over the past year, the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association has sued the city over working conditions. The union claims shifts are longer and more frequent and meals and even bathroom breaks are sometimes hard to come by. COBA President Benny Boscio Jr. has called for a hiring surge of New York’s Boldest, telling The New York Times: “If we don’t get 2,000 corrections officers, I don’t see any room for optimism.”
In the 1980s, Carmen Charles started working as a nurse’s aide at a Roosevelt Island hospital. Now, as president of the Municipal Hospital Employees Union Local 420, she represents 8,500 nonmedical workers in city hospitals. As the delta variant prolongs the COVID-19 crisis at the 11 city hospitals, Charles has demanded federal funds for personal protective equipment and other supplies to avoid a repeat of the deadly toll on front-line workers during the pandemic’s first wave, when a number of Local 420 workers died.
Beverley Brakeman is based in Connecticut and she oversees a vast region that includes parts of New York as well as Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine and Puerto Rico for the United Auto Workers. Yet her union remains focused on New York City, where she represents some 11,000 members. This election cycle, Brakeman’s UAW Region 9A provided an early boost to New York City Council Member Brad Lander’s ultimately successful candidacy to be the Democratic nominee for city comptroller.
Patrick Purcell Jr. leads the Greater New York Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust, made up of trustees from both the Laborers' union locals and their employers in a joint effort to promote union-shop construction. This year, LECET backed a New York City Council bill that would require licensing for so-called “body shops,” which supply general contractors with temporary workers who in many cases were recently incarcerated and have few employment options.
Before he led the Freelancers Union, Rafael Espinal served in the New York City Council, where he once proposed a “right to disconnect” law to let workers ignore emails and calls after hours without retribution. It went nowhere, but now, having taken his current position just before a “work from home” revolution, Espinal is even more influential as he rethinks the future – and present – of work. Federal unemployment benefits for freelancers who lost work during COVID-19 were partly due to his efforts as head of the 500,000-member union.
Comprising more than 14,000 of New York City’s current and retired state government workers, Civil Service Employees Association Metropolitan Region 2, led by President Lester Crockett, endorsed Eric Adams in the Democratic mayoral primary. Adams then joined the union’s call for the hiring of additional mental health professionals, whom the organization includes among its ranks. Crockett worked for 30 years at the New York State Insurance Fund and decided to run for local president at the company when he felt the previous president didn’t help him enough in his struggle for a promotion.
As an advocacy group for contract delivery workers, Los Deliveristas Unidos stands up for those who have risked life and limb to keep food arriving at New Yorkers’ doorsteps during a pandemic. LDU is not a traditional union, but cyclists for Seamless, Uber Eats and other apps now have the backing of one of the city’s most powerful in 32BJ SEIU. Led by Jonán Huerta and Sergio Ajche, the mostly Guatemalan and Mexican Deliveristas have taken to the streets in the thousands to rally for protections from the city, including higher pay and the right to use eatery restrooms.
Ligia Guallpa co-founded and leads the 12,000-member Worker’s Justice Project, which advocates for New York City gig workers through another group, Los Deliveristas Unidos. In May, the state Legislature considered an industrywide bargaining bill that many believed would have hindered their push for rights through bills pending before the New York City Council. Guallpa, an Ecuadorian immigrant and the daughter of a former day laborer and a garment worker, successfully lobbied legislators and unions to withdraw support, and the bill was shelved.
Brooklyn College English professor James Davis won the election this spring as president of the Professional Staff Congress-CUNY, the union for instructors at New York City’s public higher education system. It’s the first leadership change for the union this century, as outgoing President Barbara Bowen led PSC-CUNY for over two decades. Unlike some other big municipal unions in the city, PSC-CUNY opposed the Municipal Labor Committee’s taxpayer-friendly decision in July to switch retirees’ Medicare plans from federal to private administration.
This year, Gloria Middleton began her second term at the helm of CWA Local 1180. Middleton is the first African American and first woman to lead its 9,000 members, many of whom work as managers at city agencies. Responding to a New York City Council report in August that described stark gender-based and racial pay disparities at city agencies, Middleton told Gothamist/WNYC, “The people at the highest levels should not be white males.”
A big win for many Office and Professional Employees International Union members came in the form of the massive American Rescue Plan Act that President Joe Biden signed in March. An $86 billion bailout went to troubled “multi-employer” pension plans, including the one that covers members of OPEIU Local 153 in New York City. After having worked for two years on the issue as a member of the AFL-CIO Retirement Committee, OPEIU President Richard Lanigan had personally lobbied members of Congress about the need for the provision.
Ed Mullins, who was first elected head of the Sergeants Benevolent Association in 2002, has been so rhetorically aggressive on behalf of his rank and file that he’s facing potential departmental discipline. But after insulting and antagonizing high-ranking city officials for the past couple years, Mullins will almost certainly have a favored choice in City Hall come January – he was reportedly happy that NYPD veteran Eric Adams won the Democratic mayoral primary. Time will tell if Mullins extends a honeymoon period for the cop-turned-politician.
Though not as brash as the leaders of other New York City Police Department unions, Detectives’ Endowment Association President Paul DiGiacomo is similarly dogged in his defense of his rank and file’s priorities. DiGiacomo has spoken out against the 2020 bail reform that he says has allowed most suspects accused of gun crimes to return promptly to the streets. He has also defended the practice of detectives lying to suspects in the hopes of eliciting a confession, which some Democratic state senators are trying to ban.
While Henry Garrido runs District Council 37, a key member of the influential New York City public-sector union’s leadership team is Shaun Francois. Francois also heads up Board of Education Employees Local 372, whose 24,000 school lunch workers, crossing guards, loaders and handlers, and paraprofessionals make it the largest of DC 37’s many locals. The local, with its mostly lower-salaried workers, were part of the broad coalition backing Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams’ mayoral campaign.
In August, FDNY Local 2507, led by President Oren Barzilay, reached a tentative deal with New York City for a contract that includes retroactive raises of 2% to 4% a year dating back to 2018. Closing the pay gap between firefighters and his members – paramedics, EMTs, inspectors and EMS workers with the FDNY – has been one of Barzilay’s priorities since he unseated the union’s previous president in 2017 and then cruised to reelection last year.
A long-standing complaint of the New York City Fire Department’s emergency medical services workers and their president, Vincent Variale, has been their lack of pay parity with other first responders like police and firefighters. Local 3621 was among the first city unions to strike a deal on a contract during the current round of negotiations. While they scored income bumps and pay increases of 6% for being trained to respond to mental health crises, a chasm remains between medics and the police from whom that responsibility is being offloaded.
New York City’s International Union of Painters and Allied Trades survived the worst of the coronavirus pandemic partly by staggering schedules. As the city’s economy has more or less completely reopened, District Council 9 is now looking to expand its ranks, as evidenced by its recent recruiting campaign for 500 new apprentices. Joseph Azzopardi, DC9’s business manager/secretary treasurer since 2015, heads the Manhattan- and Queens-based union. He sits on the boards of the New York City Central Labor Council, the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York and the state AFL-CIO.
Even after Broadway set its reopening, the Metropolitan Opera remained shuttered as its orchestra held out against pay cuts, with Lincoln Center facing a similar situation. Adam Krauthamer leads Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, which represents musicians at both venues. Despite their dire straits – according to Krauthamer, the musicians suffered unemployment of 95% as late as April – the union’s 7,000 members in the city continued to boost New Yorkers’ spirits during the coronavirus pandemic.
A member of Utility Workers Union of America Local 1-2 for over 40 years, James Shillitto spent two decades of his career as a high-voltage lineman and troubleshooter. Representing utility workers, including all unionized workers for Con Edison, Shillitto has backed transition funds for other energy sector workers at fossil fuel plants. For its own members, the local recently prodded Rise Light & Power, the operator of Ravenswood Generating Station (the city’s largest power generator), to put $2.5 million into a union fund for training workers in the operation and maintenance of renewable energy technologies.
For over 30 years, Edwin Christian has been a member of the International Union of Operating Engineers, the union that represents the operators of the heavy machinery that erects skyscrapers in the densest big city in the United States. As head of Local 14-14B going back to the Bloomberg administration, he has sparred with city officials over the licensing of crane operators, who can make well into the six figures in salary and benefits.
Maritza Silva-Farrell has spent over a decade at ALIGN, and has served as the organization’s executive director since 2016. ALIGN, formed by a coalition of labor unions and community groups, advocates for economic equality, a cleaner environment and racial justice. She recently joined other advocates and activists in calling on Gov. Kathy Hochul to expedite the implementation of congestion pricing in Manhattan and demanded that a state wage theft bill be signed into law.
As head of the National Employment Law Project, Rebecca Dixon has focused much of her efforts on racial justice for low-wage workers. The New York-based think tank estimates that more than 26 million American workers have enjoyed pay boosts thanks to minimum wage hikes like those in New York, where Fight for $15 originated – and half of those workers are people of color. Dixon has testified before Congress about the exclusions baked into the Fair Labor Standards Act and spoke out against states ending pandemic-era unemployment benefits.
Michael Apuzzo led the Long Island City-based United Association Plumbers Local 1 through the worst of the pandemic via a multitude of methods. This includes employing staggered start times, temperature scanning and keeping members from coming to the Union Hall without an appointment. This year, UA Plumbers Local 1 encouraged its 6,000 members to show support for NRG Energy’s plan to upgrade its “peaker” plant within Con Edison’s Astoria station so it can burn natural gas.
The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health is a membership-based advocacy organization working to improve the health and safety of workers across the city and the state. NYCOSH Executive Director Charlene Obernauer recently argued that wage theft and unsafe working conditions go hand-in-hand on (often non-union) construction sites. She has also urged the state to do more to help New Yorkers file workers’ compensation claims after contracting COVID-19 on the job.
In the past year alone, the United Auto Workers-affiliated Association of Legal Aid Attorneys has led successful unionization drives for public defenders at Queens Defenders and the Office of the Appellate Defender. The 2,000-strong local has experienced growth as public defender offices around the nation move to unionize. More recently, Lisa Ohta, president of ALAA, spoke out about filthy conditions in courthouse meeting rooms for public defenders and their criminally accused clients, calling them “historically unsanitary.”
Susan DeCarava has notched a number of victories since taking office as president of the NewsGuild of New York in early 2020. This year alone, journalists at Gannett and the Daily News voted to rejoin the union, which already represents workers at The New York Times, Reuters and BuzzFeed News. The Brooklyn native has also pushed back forcefully against organizations trying to stymie unionization efforts. In August, she celebrated a vote by members to raise dues to fund ongoing battles.
Over the past few years, union drives in media workplaces have enjoyed a string of successes – and as a consequence, Writers Guild of America, East has expanded in New York while bringing newsroom after newsroom into its fold. Under the direction of Lowell Peterson, this year WGAE creatives at Onion Inc., Gimlet Media, The Ringer and Thrillist all ratified contracts, while staff at MSNBC and Jigsaw Productions voted to join up.
Brooklyn-born Joseph Geiger and the New York City carpenters’ union that he leads celebrated in June when the state Legislature passed a law that combats wage theft on construction sites. During COVID-19, he has weighed in on what kind of construction is truly essential and spearheaded the Carpenters RISE campaign to create jobs, raise wages and secure benefits. Geiger, who started his career over three decades ago as a timberman helper, worked his way up to take the reins of the 20,000-member, nine-local New York City and Vicinity District Council of Carpenters in 2013.
While also holding a leadership position as general vice president in the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers union, AFL-CIO, James Mahoney leads the New York State District Council of Iron Workers, which represents the construction workers who build New York City’s skyscrapers. As a member of New York City-based Local 580, Mahoney worked as a journeyman, foreman and steward before rising through the ranks of union leadership.
Since being named president and CEO of Amalgamated Bank in May, Priscilla Sims Brown has led the financial institution that’s as concerned with ethical investing as it is with quarterly profits. With $6.6 billion in assets, the union-owned bank is designated as a B-corporation – a “force for good” – by the nonprofit B Lab. Most recently, as a former executive at Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Brown has also served on the board of trustees of the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America.
Bronx-based Teamsters Local 202 won one of the biggest labor standoffs in New York City last year, winning a pay raise and a new three-year contract for their members who work at the massive Hunts Point Produce Market while also keeping the city’s food supply chain intact during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ritchie Torres and other prominent politicians stood with Daniel Kane Jr. and his members during the weeklong strike before a deal was reached.
Top labor lawyer Alan Klinger often represents the New York City Municipal Labor Committee, a collection of city government unions that includes DC 37, the United Federation of Teachers, and Teamsters Local 237. Klinger recently touted his firm’s decision to let staff work a hybrid home/office schedule. “We are doing this in part because we are trying to break down the class barriers that exist in many organizations, and we have come to believe that if we treat people professionally and fairly, they will respond in kind,” he told The American Lawyer.
Robert Bishop is a founding partner of the firm that has both advised and lobbied Democratic mayoral candidate Eric Adams. Pitta Bishop & Del Giorno represents many of the unions that appear on this list, including the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association and Transport Workers Union Local 100. Bishop represents the interests of the firm’s clients before state agencies and legislative bodies, as well as all executive and legislative bodies of New York City government.
Few government affairs firms with labor clients bring the expertise and experience that top lobbying firm Bolton-St. Johns does – and that’s largely thanks to Ed Draves, a partner at the firm. Draves, who has been with Bolton-St. Johns for two decades, previously worked with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and played a key role in Hillary Clinton’s U.S. Senate campaign. Among the firm’s clients are the Police Benevolent Association, the Jockeys’ Guild and the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys.
For the past decade, Patrick Dolan Jr. has been president of Steamfitters Local 638, which represents some 8,000 pipefitters in the five boroughs of New York City and on Long Island. Dolan Jr., who has been with the Long Island City-based union since 1987, and he also serves on the boards of the New York City Central Labor Council and the Long Island Federation of Labor.
Joseph D’Amato is the veteran leader of the Building Concrete, Excavating & Common Laborers Local 731, which represents several thousand excavators and other workers in New York City. D’Amato, who took over as business manager in 2000, witnessed the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City and mobilized his members to join the rescue effort. His Astoria-based local union covers the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. He serves on the executive board of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York.
COVID-19 has been tough for laundry workers, who are often undocumented immigrant women and already vulnerable to exploitation such as sub-minimum wages. Many workers lost hours and got sick, and some who stood up for their rights were fired. The watchdog for these essential workers is the Laundry Workers Center, a grassroots group led by Mahoma Lopez Garfias and Rosanna Rodríguez-Aran. The co-directors say the LWC organizes 2,500 laundry employees in New York City and New Jersey, filing lawsuits and leading demonstrations in front of laundromats.
In addition to leading the New York State Association of PBAs, Michael O’Meara is also president of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority PBA, the union for police who patrol the Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North and the Staten Island Railway. Though the direct effects of the city’s 2020 budget on public safety are unclear, O’Meara in June drew a straight line between the New York City Police Department’s roughly 7% in cuts and an increase in shootings and homicides, a trend that predated that budget.
William Lynn’s International Union of Operating Engineers Local 30 represents engineers and other workers in New York and Connecticut, including workers at the Empire State Building, Yankee Stadium and the Statue of Liberty. Lynn, who joined the union three decades ago and was elected to his current role in 2014, led a successful unionization drive at the Guggenheim in 2019, reaching a contract deal for around 140 workers there early this year. Lynn is also financial secretary and a vice president of the International Union of Operating Engineers.
Since taking over as president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1500 in late 2019, Robert Newell Jr. has grappled not only with a pandemic that has sickened the grocery store workers he represents but also corporate acquisitions and bankruptcies that threaten these workers’ livelihoods. Newell, who previously served as the local’s secretary-treasurer alongside then-President Anthony Speelman, represents over 20,000 members in downstate New York, including employees of Fairway, Stop & Shop and ShopRite.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put millions of food service employees out of work and continues to transform the restaurant industry. However, Prabhu Sigamani, director of the New York chapter of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers, continues to advocate for mandated training so that restaurant workers can keep their skills in line with what employers need. Sigamani’s chapter offers weekly job placement sessions and also hosts free online training in hospitality, wine, bartending, entrepreneurship and food handling. The organization also offers an Occupational Safety and Health Administration 10-Hour virtual course for restaurant safety.
The Independent Drivers Guild is a gig workers’ nonprofit representing 250,000 ride-share drivers in New York, other Northeast states and Illinois. Founded by labor lawyer James Conigliaro Jr. and led by Executive Director Brendan Sexton, the group advocates for benefits and protections for app-based drivers. The Machinists-backed guild also backed high-profile legislation in Albany that would allow members to unionize and bargain industry-wide but retain their independent contractor status, although it has yet to pass.
Michael Carrube leads the Subway Surface Supervisors Association, the second-largest transit union representing workers at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Carrube, who in addition to heading up the 4,000-member SSSA is president of the National Association of Transportation Supervisors, has been dealing with a pandemic that has killed a number of his members. This spring, he penned an op-ed in the Queens Daily Eagle advocating for better data collection and standards to more effectively counter COVID-19.
As students return to the classroom this fall, school districts are grappling with a potential shortage of bus drivers to get them there – including in New York City, where Michael Cordiello is drawing attention to the problem. Cordiello, who as president of the 13,000-member Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181-1061 represents around half of the city’s bus drivers and mechanics, has cited the impact of COVID-19 and a spate of retirements as well as a lack of adequate pay increases.
Starting his career as a municipal actuary in 1988, Maf Misbah Uddin became president of District Council 37’s Accountants, Actuaries, and Statisticians Local 1407 a dozen years later. Maintaining that leadership position to this day, he has also served for five terms as DC 37’s treasurer. Perhaps the most prominent Muslim and South Asian labor leader in the city, Uddin is also president of the national Alliance of South Asian American Labor.
Beating longtime President Fitz Reid in an election this year, Carmen De León topped a successful slate of reform-minded challengers to lead Local 768, a union that encompasses thousands of city workers in health services. Speech pathologists, art therapists and dental assistants are just a few of the positions that 4,500 Local 768 members fill in city agencies like the city’s fire and police departments, the public housing authority and the offices of borough presidents and district attorneys.
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1056 represents 1,700 Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus drivers, maintenance workers and cleaners in Queens. As a former bus driver himself, ATU Local 1056’s President Mark Henry celebrated the passage of the NY HERO Act, which sets virus-related workplace standards that are especially crucial in environments like packed buses. “My members … put their lives on the line daily during the height of the pandemic,” he told the Queens Chronicle; in fact, at least 12 members of ATU Local 1056 have died of COVID-19.
When the de Blasio administration reached an agreement with the Municipal Labor Committee to transfer New York City public-sector retirees to a Medicare Advantage plan, the city selected Empire BlueCross BlueShield as one of the two insurers to administer the NYC Medicare Advantage Plus Program. Given the expertise and experience of Empire BlueCross BlueShield executive Thomas Canty with government and labor clients, it’s no surprise his company was brought on to help keep health care costs in check.
Once the director of the AFL-CIO’s benefits department and the former leader of the industry group America’s Health Insurance Plans, Karen Ignagni now leads EmblemHealth, one of the largest nonprofit health insurers in the nation. With plans covering 3 million people in New York City and the tri-state area, EmblemHealth leans on zero-copay primary and preventive care as a means to improve health outcomes and save taxpayers money. Her company was also brought in to administer a Medicare Advantage plan for public-sector retirees after a recent cost-cutting agreement was reached.
MagnaCare, a third-party health insurance administrator that serves self-funded clients, started in 1992. It began as an insurance company that served labor and public-sector clients, and today, Michelle Zettergren presides over that core part of the company’s business. Coming to MagnaCare in 2017 with a long history of underwriting labor insurance, Zettergren is also a certified mediator with experience in labor negotiations.
Since the 1980s, Gregory Mantsios has been creating educational programs in New York City designed to educate students and advance the labor cause. In 1984, he founded the Murphy Institute at the City University of New York, which he would run until it became the basis for CUNY’s School of Labor and Urban Studies in 2018. The school serves many working non-traditional students and those from poor and working-class upbringings. Mantsios is also a former elected officer of American Federation of Teachers Local 1796.
Postal workers around the country didn’t hold back about what they saw as the dismantling of their agency by U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy last year, especially his policies that seemed timed to delay mail-in ballots cast for the 2020 election. In New York City, it was New York Metro Area Postal Workers Union head Jonathan Smith ringing the alarm, telling NY1, “By destroying the Postal Service, not only is he slowing down the mail, but he’s taking away the American people’s voice.”
A lawyer who has represented workers – unionized or otherwise – in high-profile cases, Benjamin Dictor helped notch a win in March for a Trader Joe’s employee who was fired for complaining to the CEO about lax coronavirus protections at his Manhattan store – and that employee was swiftly offered his job back. Dictor is also the attorney for the NewsGuild of New York, which represents workers at The New York Times, the Daily Beast, Time, the Daily News and other major outlets.
In January 2020, Yesenia Mata took on a new role leading La Colmena, a community organization that trains and advocates for low-wage immigrant workers on Staten Island. Within weeks, she pivoted to take on a pandemic that was posing another threat to the domestic workers and day laborers that she works with. Mata is also a member of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s New York City Racial Justice Commision.
Wayne Joseph has led the Bridge and Tunnel Officers Benevolent Association for nearly a decade, most recently getting reelected to a fourth three-year term last fall. Joseph, who represents 380 peace officers, has served for nearly three decades with MTA Bridges and Tunnels, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s division that oversees seven MTA bridges and two tunnels in New York City. Joseph is also a co-chair of the New York State Public Employee Conference, a coalition of public-sector labor unions in the state.
Daniel Wright recently succeeded Sean Campbell to take the driver’s seat at Teamsters Local 813, which represents workers in the private sanitation industry in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The Teamsters local, which is based in Queens, also represents workers in a range of other sectors, including the funeral, demolition, rental car, paper and factory and warehouse industries. In recent years the union has teamed with New York City Council Member Antonio Reynoso on legislation protecting sanitation workers.
As the president of the New York Structural Steel Painting Contractors Association, Kieran Ahern leads the trade association in its contract negotiations between member companies and Local Union 806, District Council 9, Structural Steel and Bridge Painters of Greater New York. The trade association represents member companies that paint bridges, electrical towers and other steel structures. Ahern is also a co-chair of the National Steel Painting Contractors Association.
Kathleen Culhane leads Nontraditional Employment for Women, a nonprofit that advocates for women in trades by taking a pro-development stance in its efforts to increase opportunities for women in construction and other industries. Culhane has touted the $40 million Green Economy Fund, which is directed toward job training for residents along the Canada-to-Queens path of the controversial Champlain Hudson Power Express power line. She’s also advocated for a build-out of New York City’s life science lab space as an opportunity for career advancement for low-income women.
Eddie Rodriguez, who served as president of District Council 37 until losing his reelection bid in 2019, still leads New York City Clerical Administrative Employees Local 1549, which represents about 16,000 clerical employees across city agencies. This year, union leadership helped scrap a proposal by the state Legislature that would have eliminated face-to-face interviews with the Human Resources Administration – no mean feat in an increasingly virtual post-COVID world.
Brandworkers is a worker advocacy organization comprising mostly undocumented immigrants in the food industry. Led by Interim Executive Director Gabriel Morales, the group has organized against wage theft and opposed a demand for proof of immigration status by a bakery in Queens. In August, Brandworkers gained a key ally on the National Labor Relations Board when the U.S. Senate confirmed a board member, Gwynne Wilcox, to serve a five-year term.
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