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One On 1: Lillian Roberts Represents Labor Of Love

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While Mayor Bloomberg says the pension systems of the city's municipal unions should be reformed, District Council 37 says the city's budget crisis is the fault of Wall Street -- not municipal workers and their benefits. It's just the latest in a lifetime of union battles for DC 37's leader, Lillian Roberts. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.

Most 83-year-olds spend the golden years quietly, perhaps enjoying grandchildren and retirement. District Council 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts hasn't gotten the memo.

DC 37 is the city's largest municipal union, with 125,000 workers and 50,000 retirees.
Lillian Roberts first got involved with unions as a nurse's aide in her native Chicago in the early 1950s, working under Victor Gotbaum, a man who would become one of New York's most important labor leaders.


Roberts came here in the mid 1960s.

In 1981, she was named state labor commissioner, and subsequently worked in the private sector. But in 2002, with DC 37 mired in a scandal involving embezzlement, kickbacks and voter fraud in union elections, Roberts returned to the union, a move she connected to the poverty of her childhood.

"We have people who are homeless, in shelters, things like that. How could I walk away from that? I told you, those scars are very deep," says Roberts.

Much has changed during Roberts' decades of organizing. The city unions filled the old Madison Square Garden for a 1967 rally at a time when unions were seen as protecting workers’ rights. Critics now see them as protecting workers’ perks, pensions and excessive benefits. Roberts says that perception starts with the media.

"Well I think the public has been feed one steady diet. And the media hasn't gotten smart enough yet to know that they should ask the other side. Because when there's anti-labor statements made, they don't come and talk to the union and say, 'What are you gonna do about pensions and what are you gonna do about this?'" says Roberts.

One thing hasn't changed from Roberts' first days in the union.

"I am a woman in a man's world," says Roberts. "And that is not very easy to start with. because somehow, the concept of labor is that you've gotta be very muscular, you've gotta pound the desk and all those things. And I'm just the opposite. I'm tough, but I'm tough when I have to be."


Roberts says one of those times was in the 1960s, when her union AFSCME, was battling the Teamsters to represent hospital workers. The battle was so intense that Roberts carried a brick in her purse. Roberts claims that the Teamsters tried to provoke fights at one hospital.

"I said, 'I'll go.' And they didn't want me to go. I said, 'I'm going.' So I went and I had...I probably had two fights in my whole life. I knew I had to duke that day, though," recalls Roberts. "We both went down on the ground. And she came up with a broken nose. I don't know how that happened, but she did. And she went into the hospital. That was the end of all the fights."

The fight for Roberts and DC 37 right now is to get a new contract from the city and avoid layoffs. She says the union is researching where the money can be found in the city's budget.

Another of the union's mantras is that the city should employ its own workers and not outside consultants, and Roberts cites the CityTime scandal, in which consultants overseeing a payroll system to eliminate waste and fraud by public employees now stand accused of swindling $80 million from the city's coffers.

But Roberts says a labor leader is frequently in the middle, between the rank and file and management, in this case, the city.

"A labor leader is not one who just gets up and makes a speech," says Roberts. "We are also, frequently, have to educate our membership as to the directions we wanna go, and sometimes, they don't wanna go there. And when you go back to management, you have to make sure that what you stated to them about the resolution is exactly what you can do."

Lillian Roberts grew up in poverty in Chicago, suffering what she saw as humiliation in silence.

"That was basically what shaped me and had me very sad as a little girl," recalls Roberts.

She went off to the University of Illinois, but had to come home after a year because her family could no longer afford it. She worked as a nurse's aide in a hospital. Roberts says when the local union didn't respond to her calls, she took the case of some mistreated cleaning women to a supervisor.

"I said, 'Why are you doing this to them? Their family's sick and you're not letting them off, and somebody died.' All those things came back to me," says Roberts. "And she didn't like it, but she sort of got off of their back."

Roberts says the employees subsequently elected her shop steward. She came to the attention of union leader Victor Gottbaum, who put her to work in southern Illinois -- a black woman in the 1950s, organizing in predominantly white communities.

"They would call me names and I would ignore them. And they called up Victor Gottbaum to say, 'Why do you have that nigger standing out here?'" recalls Roberts. "But after a while, my reputation preceded me and I was no longer black; I was the union representative."


In the mid 1960s Roberts brought her love of union work to New York, leaving behind a personal tragedy in Chicago.

"My sister had been murdered in Chicago, and I had her three sons and my mother. And to bring them out of Chicago was hard, but easy because they needed a different setting," says Roberts.

But the love of the work -- Roberts calls it a mission -- exacted a toll on her first marriage.

"He wanted more of me, and I just didn't have the hours in the day. So in the evenings, he would spend his time cussing the union. And I couldn't let the union go," says Roberts. "And then I made the mistake of marrying again. I couldn't leave my lovers, who was the union. I'm one of those unusual people. I'm married to this 125,000 workers."

In 1968, Roberts led a hospital strike, defying the Taylor Law forbidding strikes by public workers. She spent two weeks in jail.

"I knew that you were gonna pay a price for what you did. I knew in advance I should be treated no different than anybody else," recalls Roberts. "If I'm doing a man's job, i'll take a man's punishment."

The years since have seen much change in the role and image of unions, including DC 37.
What hasn't changed is Lillian Roberts' belief in the union movement and her decision to devote her life to it.

"My calling was to nurture and to aid people who needed it, and try to take away the pain. And that is a very good feeling to come to near the end of your life, knowing that you transferred that into something meaningful," says Roberts.

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