Municipal Government

Louis Levine’s Long Labor Life

February 4, 2016
By Steven Wishnia

New York, NY – When Louis Levine’s career in the labor movement began, Harry S Truman was President, Jackie Robinson was starring on the newly integrated Brooklyn Dodgers, and an innovative saxophonist named Charlie Parker was the biggest new thing in jazz.

“I have stories…” he says.

Now 88, Levine has served as an official of the New York City Central Labor Council, as state labor commissioner under three governors, and as a health-insurance executive. In 1978, he founded the National Labor and Management Conference, which will hold its 39th annual session in Hollywood, Florida Feb. 11-16.

Levine says he started the conference because he believed labor and management needed a forum to discuss issues, such as health-care costs, pensions, safety, and government regulations, that affect both of them. “There needs to be a rapprochement, if you will, between labor and management. Sometimes they have similar interests,” he says. “Companies need workers, and the workers need management, they need an employer with the capital to pay them.”

This year’s conference will focus on health care and pensions. How will Obamacare, especially the impending “Cadillac tax” on union health-care plans, affect collective bargaining agreements? What about the rising cost of pharmaceuticals? The “disaster building up” with small hospitals closing all over the nation? Many multiemployer and small employers’ pension plans are going broke, Levine says, and “there isn’t enough money in the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation to pay for them.”

The conference’s six featured speakers will be Teamsters secretary-treasurer Ken Hall; JP Morgan executive Anastasia Amorosa; United Auto Workers secretary-treasurer Gary Casteel; Laborers President Terry O’Sullivan; Sarah Chamberlain of the Republican Main Street Partnership; and Randy DeFrehn of the National Coordinating Committee for Multiemployer Plans.

Levine, born in the Bronx, grew up in Brooklyn, where his family moved after his father died. He graduated from college in 1949 after serving in the Army, and got a job working for the city’s welfare commissioner. He became active in the Government and Civic Employees Organizing Committee, the CIO-backed union that supplanted the leftist United Public Workers. In 1952, Mike Quill tapped him to run the Central Labor Council’s community services, and he continued in that role under Harry Van Arsdale after the AFL and CIO merged in 1955.

In 1966, then-governor Nelson Rockefeller appointed him state labor commissioner. President Richard Nixon considered him for Secretary of Labor in 1972, but instead picked city building-trades leader Peter J. Brennan, a staunch supporter of the Vietnam War. “I kissed the ground I didn’t make it,” Levine recalls.

Levine disagreed with both Nixon and then AFL-CIO leader George Meany on the establishment of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “I believe to this day it is not as effective as state systems,” he says. The New York State system he headed had 400 workers, he explains, and OSHA has only seven to 10 inspectors to cover New York City’s construction industry. “That’s why they’re having all these accidents,” he says. “They can’t monitor all these sites.”

In 1976, he resigned to become an executive at Group Health Insurance, EmblemHealth’s predecessor, and in 1980, became a vice president at Blue Cross. Since 1991, he’s been president of the New York College of Podiatric Medicine.

What changes has he seen in his nearly seven decades in the world of labor? First, he says, the huge growth in government regulation, which “impacts every single part of our working lives.” Second, automation and information technology, which have radically changed work and made it harder to organize unions, because they’ve made work much more individualized.

Cell phones, he notes, have largely supplanted traditional land-line phones. “Maintaining landlines was a big job,” he says. “Not anymore. What happened to those workers?”

February 3, 2016

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