Municipal Government

Dick O’Kane Long Island Labor Leader

January 11, 2016
By Bill Hohlfeld

Dick O’Kane

Patchogue, LI- Make no mistake about it. To fill the position of President of the Building & Construction Trades Council of Nassau and Suffolk Counties is no easy task. It takes a combination of hard work and dedication, coupled with street smarts and political savvy. Bringing all that experience and knowledge together does not happen overnight.

For Dick O’Kane, it all started one day in 1971, when he decided he was “the luckiest man on the planet.” That was the day he was accepted into the Apprenticeship Program of Ironworkers Local 361.  At the time, he had been working for the Department of Public Works for the Town of Islip, and the local had a recruitment. Dick heard about it, applied and made the cut. From that point on, there was no looking back.

Dick became active in his union and politically involved. Starting with the position of Sergeant-at-Arms in 1978, he completed his political apprenticeship by holding every political position in Local 361,from a seat on the Executive Board to Recording Secretary and Vice- President, President and on to Business Agent and finally, Business Manager. All in all, Dick spent 35 of his 43 years as an Ironworker serving his local.

As impressive as his climb up the political ladder may have been, it is important to highlight his nearly 26 years in the field, working with his tools. He reflects fondly on a day, years ago when work was slow and his Business Manager asked him, “Can you swim?” He answered “yes,” and found himself manning the Safety Boat beneath the Robert Moses Bridge. It  was put there to prevent drowning in the event of a fall by one of his brother Ironworkers or bridge painters. He also remembers (if not quite so fondly) what it was like when winter came, the brutal conditions on the open boat, or being adrift when the engine stalled and having to toss lines to the crew on the bridge so he could be pulled about, while the boat pitched and rolled.

His career as a foreman took him to such landmark projects like the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the Brooklyn Bridge, where he and his crew addressed the deterioration of the girders and replaced cables in the towers. It wasn't until 1996, when Dick became Business Agent, that his tool belt stayed in the trunk of his car.

His career as a foreman took him to such landmark projects like the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the Brooklyn Bridge, where he and his crew addressed the deterioration of the girders and replaced cables in the towers. It wasn't until 1996, when Dick became Business Agent, that his tool belt stayed in the trunk of his car.

Then, one night in July of 2013, Dick received a call from the former President of the Long Island Building Trades, Jim Castellane. Jim, in less than perfect health, had reached the difficult decision to retire, and he asked Dick if he would be interested in taking the helm. Never having been one to shy away from a hard job that needed to be done, Dick agreed to abide with the wishes of the Council. At that point, Jim nominated Dick for the position, to which he was elected unanimously.

Like so many others who hold positions of trust in the labor movement today, Dick’s primary concern is the incursion of non- union companies. He is painfully aware that the threat never goes away, and points to what happened in Colorado in the mid 1980’s. “They [the unions] had about 85% of the work, and three years later they had 6%,” he says. He goes on to explain, “often it’s not about the money; it’s work rules, regulations and jurisdiction – contractors hate that.”  It’s part of why he sees the PLA as such an effective tool to keep construction work union. They eliminate many of those arguments while maintaining wages and fringes. Though he sees the PLA as the “life blood of the union movement today,” Dick knows that they alone will
not solve all of labor’s problems. There is also a need for what he calls “serious conversations” with good union contractors to let them know we are enforcing our standards of excellence. “The news is good,” he says “but just because there is $12 Billion worth of work heading into the greater New York area, doesn’t mean we don’t have to stay vigilant.”

It is also important to Dick that the public be aware of all the good that stems from Building Trades apprenticeship programs, and how agreements that contain apprenticeship language help level the playing field.  “ I can show you work sites on Long Island where there are cars with license plates from Utah, Kansas, Georgia, Texas and even Canada in the parking lot.” In regions of the state like suburban Nassau and Suffolk counties where 30% of people between the ages of 19 and 30 are leaving, that’s not good. “Statistics like that break up families and destroy the tax base,” says Dick. For a man who was born and raised on Long Island, beginning in Central Islip and ending in Bayshore, it is important to him that career paths continue to exist for Long Island residents.

One of the means of providing those paths is through a new program called Opportunity Long Island. The program consists of 300 hours of training available to those Long island residents interested in becoming tradesmen. It is not so much a technical training as much as a primer for good work habits such as attendance, punctuality and focusing on task completion. So far,16 people have participated in the program, primarily people of color and women.  To date,14 have graduated and been placed in apprenticeship programs, and Dick has no doubts that they will do well.

To gain real insight into who Dick O’Kane is, however, ask him which of his accomplishments make him the proudest. Without hesitation he will take you back a decade, when in a conversation with a friend he was told that there were between 150,000 and 200,000 homeless veterans. That is when he first envisioned the Homeless Veterans Assistance Fund. It was introduced in the the U.S. House of Representatives by Democrat Steve Israel of Long Island. In technical terms, the Homeless Veterans Assistance Fund Act of 2015 amends the Internal Revenue Code to: (1) establish in the Treasury the Homeless Veterans Assistance Fund; (2) allow individual taxpayers to designate on their tax returns a specified portion (not less than $1) of any overpayment of tax, and to make a contribution of an additional amount, to be paid over to such Fund to provide services to homeless veterans; and (3) require the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Labor, and Housing and Urban Development, each year beginning with the President's annual budget submission for FY2017, to include a description of the use of funds from the Fund in the previous fiscal year and the proposed use of such funds for the next fiscal year. In truth, Dick’s idea was a simple one. Include a box on tax return form 1040, where, if people checked that box $1.00 would be donated to that fund. Despite all his lobbying efforts and cooperation from various Local and International unions, the change has yet to appear on the federal form. But it is now a reality on New York State Income Tax forms, and that is a pretty substantial victory.

Dick O’Kane has taken on some large tasks in the course of his career. Whether it was a bridge or a piece of legislation, he has faced his challenges head on, and tackled them with confidence. One of the other traits that fuels his work ethic is gratitude. The son of immigrant parents, he thinks back to a time when his father had passed away and left his mother with 15 year old twins, him and his sister. He remembers clearly worrying about money. And then, as he puts it, “ came the best break I ever caught in life –  the next 45 years were excellent; I couldn’t ask for more.” Fortunately for Long Island, Dick O’Kane is the kind of man who fights hard to see that those kind of breaks are there for the next guy.

January 10, 2016

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