July 7, 2011
By Abigail Mitchell
This past June 21st, the Workers Defense League celebrated their 75th anniversary by honoring three prominent labor presidents.
“The question was should we have balloons on the table, or 75 on the desserts,” said Executive Director Jon Bloom. “And we decided that rather than doing something like that, purely symbolic…let’s honor some deserving people.”The three lucky honorees were Raglan George Jr., executive director of DC 1707, AFSCME; Arthur Cheliotes, president of Local 1180, CWA; and John Wilhelm, president of UNITE HERE.
Raglan George Jr., the only executive director honored at the event, was remembered by his mentor Henry Fawlner as “one of the outstanding products of the labor movement” and the best basketball player in the trade unions.
George began his labor career in the Furrier and Leather Workers Union before settling down at DC 1707, where he works on behalf of day care staffers and the children in their care.
“When I came to the municipal unions and found what the struggle was there, it was devastating,” George said. When we elect leaders in the city of New York and find that they are not doing that job, we should be fighting and working to remove them from office.”
Among his other achievements, George has saved thousands of jobs for day care workers, and in 2005 staged a one-man daily vigil at City Call.
Said Kim Medina, president of DC 1707, “this award is for him, but it is also in recognitions of our members, who fight the good fight and stay the course until it is done.”
Christopher Shelton of the Communications Workers of America described Arthur Cheliotes as “an outspoken advocate for civil service, tax equity, and worker education”.
Under Cheliotes’ leadership, Local 1180 encompass many non-public sector workers, including Planned Parenthood, ASPCA and Amnesty international.
He was also one of the founders of the labor studies program at the City University of New York. When accepting his award, Cheliotes emphasized the importance of engaging members.
“Our union realizes, that if we are going to be effective, if we are going to make a difference we cannot do it with the leadership and the shop stewards, we need to do it with every member,” Cheliotes said to loud applause. “A lot of them are still sleepwalking.”
John Wilhelm, the only the only national president honored, travels the country working on behalf of hotel and restaurant employees. Wilhelm entered the labor movement fresh out of Yale when he answered an ad in a newspaper and never left, said presenter Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United.
“It isn’t easy to leave your family all the time. It isn’t easy to make all these sacrifices, but your heart and your life have been about something that’s far greater than any of us can imagine."
Though Wilhelm said he dislikes award ceremonies for labor presidents, he made an exception for WDL because they chose both local and national leaders.
“I’m very glad that Brother George and Brother Cheliotes are being honored tonight as well because the real heroes or our labor movement are rank and file leaders and local presidents, out in the trenches doing the work that needs to be done.” Wilhelm said.