NEW YORK, N.Y.—What qualities make a hero?
Some might say charity, devoting your life to helping others. Some might say courage, what the late writer Tom Wolfe defined as “the uncritical willingness to face danger.” And in the union movement, some would say organizing, the ability to inspire people to stand up in solidarity and the dedication to do the legwork essential to sustain that.
All three were represented at LaborPress’s seventh annual Heroes of Labor Awards, held Oct. 3 at EmblemHealth’s headquarters in Manhattan. City bus driver Dahkim Gatling runs food and toy drives for children through his organization M.A.D. Focus, as well as writing contests where kids can win scholarships. Recently retired Fire Department Captain John Farina worked as a counselor for firefighters and their families for the last ten years of his career. “His greatest asset and his ability was to save lives out of uniform,” Uniformed Fire Officers Association President James Lemonda said before presenting Farina with a lifetime-achievement award.
They make all of us proud to be New Yorkers. — NY Rangers legend Mark Messier
City sanitation worker Erin Schneider saved a fellow electric-broom operator from losing his arm when it got trapped inside the machine. Corrections officer Jean Souffrant survived a brutal attack by gang members at Rikers Island that fractured his neck. Mike Hellstrom of the 17,000-member Mason Tenders District Council has been a key organizer of the CountMeIn campaign to stop developer the Related Companies from using nonunion labor at its Hudson Yards project.
To a man and woman, they denied being heroes. “I’m not a hero,” Gatling, a member of Transport Workers Union Local 100, said at the awards ceremony. “I’m Robin. She’s Batman,” he added, pointing to his mother in the audience. In a video shown before his award, he said he was inspired to start his efforts by the sheer joy an often-bullied boy on his bus exhibited when Gatling gave him a football.
“I wouldn’t really consider myself a hero,” said Schneider, a member of Teamsters Local 831. “I’m just happy I was able to hear my coworker.”
“I don’t think that I’ve done anything that’s so spectacular,” Hellstrom, who was unable to attend because he was at a national Laborers Union meeting, said in a video. “But I’m in awe.”
It was left to others to sing their praises. The CountMeIn campaign has spread to 15 cities, and Hellstrom “really became the organizer of this campaign,” Building and Construction Trades Council President Gary LaBarbera said. “He’s doing it not for himself, but for every member of the building trades.”
Souffrant’s spirited recovery from his injuries was inspiring, said Correction Officers Benevolent Association President Elias Husamudeen. Most people, he said, “have no idea what we do,” but “those guys are still bad guys,” and “heroes never stop. We don’t give up.”
Souffrant brought his wife and several coworkers from the George Motchan Detention Center up to the podium while he accepted his award.
EmblemHealth CEO Karen M. Ignagni described the five nominees as “everyday people—unsung heroes, except for tonight.” “They make all of us proud to be New Yorkers,” said retired Rangers star Mark Messier, captain of the team that won the Stanley Cup in 1994.
“I got to do some of the best things the job has to offer,” Farina reflected. “I also got to do some of the worst.”
As a firefighter, “you learn how short life is,” he continued, “but you can always pick someone up. That’s what we do in the Fire Department.”