June 7, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
New York, NY – The event was intended to celebrate the achievements of four labor leaders, but Ironworkers head Eric M. Dean told the more than 200 people attending that now is not a time for unions to “just pat ourselves on the back.”
LaborPress’s annual Labor Leadership Awards, held June 1 at the New York City District Council of Carpenters’ Manhattan headquarters, honored International Association of Machinists President Robert Martinez Jr.; International Union of Elevator Constructors General President Frank Christensen; Transport Workers Union President Harry Lombardo, and Dean, president of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers. All four warned that unions have to fight for their very survival, as well as stressing construction-safety issues.
Martinez, introduced by James Conigliaro of IAM District 15, set the tone. “It is our job to ensure that we are not the last generation to enjoy these benefits,” he said. Unions need to “think more innovatively” about organizing and challenge the proliferation of so-called “right to work” laws that undermine them, he contended. He suggested that the AFL-CIO should “get the momentum going” against those laws, by focusing on one state to enact a measure would require “these back-riders and these scabs” to pay fees to the unions required to represent them.
“Let’s pick a state,” Dean responded during his speech. Martinez also urged unions to learn social media to reach young workers. “If we don’t learn how to drive in the strange new world,” he said, “we’re certainly going to get run over.”
Lenny Legotte of Elevator Constructors Local 1 joked about teaching Christensen, a native of Chicago, how to use a MetroCard, but the union’s president devoted his speech to the fact that 35 states have laws that require elevator mechanics and contractors to be licensed, but New York doesn’t.
“The place that has the most elevators in the country doesn’t have licensing,” he said. “Are we going forward or are we going backwards?”
A bill has been introduced in the New York City Council that would mandate that workers on any building more than 10 stories tall would have to complete an apprenticeship program certified by the state Department of Labor, said Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York.
Dean, another Chicagoan, was introduced by New York State Ironworkers President James Mahoney as a fourth-generation ironworker. While he’s proud of his son being the fifth generation, he said, one of his main goals is to reach nonunion ironworkers.
“I don’t think our organization can survive by fishing in the same fishbowl,” he said. “I am not content being head of an organization that is static.”
“We can’t let the moneyed interests ‘trump’ the working people of this country, he added,” pun very much intended.
Lombardo, speaking last, denounced Donald Trump as “nothing more than a hustler,” but said there’s significant support for the likely Republican presidential candidate among the TWU’s rank-and- file, because he’s “in the face of the establishment” and “kicked the ass” of the party’s leadership.
He said he feared that the labor movement had “missed an opportunity” by not getting behind Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination, but urged unions to go all out for probable candidate Hillary Clinton.
“We have five months to save ourselves, to stand up for America,” he said. “If Trump takes over, our asses are dead meat.”
On the other hand, he added, if Clinton is elected, the labor movement will have to continuously pressure her.