Young leaders are helping to shape the future of organized labor on Long Island.
More than 250,000 residents of Nassau and Suffolk counties belong to unions, according to an estimate from the umbrella group Long Island Federation of Labor. Many are in construction, health care, retail, education and government service.
Workers under 40 are the key demographic group for union organizers seeking to sign up members.
“The growth is exactly in that group — millennials and Generation X,” said John Durso, president of the labor federation. “Young people are becoming aware that the best way for them to have a better life is through the union movement. And they don’t just want to make their lives better, they are concerned about the community as a whole.”
The Island is second only to New York City among the state’s 10 regions in terms of the percentage of workers who are union members. Statewide, the rate is 22 percent, the second highest in the country after Hawaii, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Despite organized labor's relative strength in New York State, unions face challenges because of adverse decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and the federal National Labor Relations Board that make it more difficult to enroll new members and collect dues.
Durso said union membership locally has edged up because of more work in construction and health care.
Labor leaders also have lobbied state government to include them in building wind farms off the South Shore. The wind farms are expected to create 5,000 jobs.
Wind energy is one of several new industries where organized labor is making gains. Medical marijuana dispensaries also have been organized across the state, with about 400 employees joining Local 338 of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store union, which Durso has led for 20 years.
Thomas J. Lilly Jr., chairman of SUNY Old Westbury’s politics, economics and law department, said, “Long Island remains a relative hotbed of labor activity compared with almost all of the rest of the country.”
Still, while New York State government "is labor-friendly, the national government is anti-union, and that can have an effect here,” he said, referring to the Supreme Court’s Janus decision in 2018, which bars unions from collecting dues from nonmembers who benefit from union contracts.
Lilly said his students are interested in joining unions because of the rise of the gig economy, which rarely offers benefits like employer-paid health insurance and retirement plans.
Nearly seven in 10 people under age 30 have a favorable opinion of unions, according to a 2018 national poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. Among those age 50 to 64, six in 10 have a negative opinion of unions.
“College-educated workers are a bigger part of the labor movement than in the old days,” said Ruth Milkman, a professor at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies in Manhattan. “The growth in union membership is among white-collar workers with a college education.”
She said these workers, many of whom are millennials, are prone to activism because they saw parents and friends lose good-paying jobs during the recession and fail to find adequate replacements. In addition, young workers are often stuck in low-paying jobs that make it nearly impossible to pay off their college loans.
This activism, said Milkman, has led some young union members to take on the role of shop steward, organizer or other grassroots positions, in addition to their full-time jobs.
Durso agreed, saying, “They realize the difference in their lives that the union has made, and they want to give back.”
Here are the stories of four people who have assumed leadership roles in their unions. Call them the new face of Long Island's labor movement.
— James T. Madore
NAME: Samantha Warasila
HOMETOWN: East Patchogue
OCCUPATION: Charge nurse at Stony Brook Southampton
UNION: Service Employees International, Local 1199
UNION POSITION: Delegate
When a hospital department is short on nurses during a shift, supervisors often bring in a nurse from another part of the hospital to make up for the staffing deficit. The strategy is known as “floating.”
Samantha Warasila, a charge nurse at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, said the practice can be unsettling for nurses who are sent to a department they haven't worked in before.
She said hospitals routinely take the same least-senior nurses and float them. At Southampton, Warasila said this led nurses to reach out to their union, which helped improve the system. Now, every nurse pitches in, “so it’s not so overwhelming to the less-experienced nurses.”
The union support also led to another discovery: A unit in the hospital’s cardiac area was requesting extra nursing support almost every day, according to data that nurses and union delegates compiled.
She said the union argued that staffers needed to be added. In the end, Stony Brook Southampton worked with the union and added six new full-time registered nurse positions.
Benefits negotiated by the union also have led Warasila to take classes the union offers and to continue her education at Molloy College to become a nurse practitioner. Her tuition is reimbursed by the union.
Seeing the union in action and going to meetings inspired her to become more involved earlier this year.
"I became a delegate because we only had two delegates for the hospital and there was a need to step up and be an advocate for our staff," she said.
— David Reich-Hale
NAME: Miles March
HOMETOWN: Dix Hills
OCCUPATION: Construction worker
UNION: Laborers' International, Local 66
UNION POSITION: Organizer
After earning a bachelor's degree in history from SUNY Albany in 2012, Miles Marsh faced an uncertain future.
He worked in a relative's industrial parts supply warehouse and in July 2015 began working at union construction jobs.
"Once I got into the union, I understood the power of the rat," he said, referring to the blow-up rodent used to pressure employers. "Without unions, there would be no middle class. From the inception of my apprenticeship, it opened my eyes."
Marsh attended a union training program about the history of the labor movement, the forces arrayed against unions and techniques for persuading workers to organize.
In April 2016, he went on a union organizing trip to raise issues such as using union labor on infrastructure projects with the New York congressional delegation in Washington.
These days he rotates between construction jobs — most recently the third-track project to expand the capacity of the Long Island Rail Road's main line — and union organizing.
The demolition, masonry and concrete work he does can be taxing, but so can trying to inject the union into job sites, including those that receive tax breaks or bring in out-of-state contractors.
"Nine out of 10 times, you'll get shrugged off or you get cursed and they'll say, 'Get out of here.' " Marsh said. "We try to talk to the business agent or owner of the company. If that fails, we put up a picket line. My objective is to put local union laborers to work."
That's where the inflatable rat comes in, Marsh said.
"Sometimes just blowing that thing up, they're like, 'Wait! Wait! We'll work this out! Seeing that big, ugly, brutish-looking rat is a statement."
— Ken Schachter
NAME: Yave Infante
OCCUPATION: Deli clerk and cook at Wild by Nature
UNION: United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 1500
UNION POSITION: Shop steward
By the end of Yave Infante's first union meeting almost a decade ago, he knew he was part of something special: a community. Last year, when the shop steward at the supermarket where he works left for another job, he jumped in.
"When I first joined, I was pleasantly surprised," Infante said. "Everyone was helpful and genuine and nice ... No fancy words, no attitudes. Just caring people offering their help," he said.
"I also wanted to help. I wanted to make sure other members knew about all the benefits and resources available to them."
At a previous job without a union, Infante was paying more than $1,000 a month for health insurance coverage for his wife and himself.
His job at the store and "being part of the union changed that," Infante said.
"I pay only $10 a week [for health insurance] now, and we have incredible benefits. I feel protected. I don't have to worry about being unjustly fired. It's truly a long list of very positive things. It's been a blessing all around."
But perhaps the biggest blessing, he said — and what he's most passionate about — is being able to pay it forward.
"I've jumped through the hoops, and now I can help make it easy for other people," said Infante, who has worked at Wild by Nature for 11 years.
"Any questions or concerns other staffers may have about benefits or resources, I'm there for them, and if something's not right, I'm there to keep an eye out for them, too ... That's what the union is all about, it's a support system."
— Daysi Calavia-Robertson
NAME: Cordelia Anthony
HOMETOWN: Central Islip
OCCUPATION: Biology teacher
UNION: Farmingdale Federation of Teachers, Local 17-100 of New York State United Teachers
UNION POSITION: President
When Cordelia Anthony became president of the Farmingdale Federation of Teachers in June 2017, the union had some unfinished business.
"We were working without a contract," she said.
Negotiations stretched into the following spring, but finally the union hammered out a deal with the administration.
"We had to rally the membership," Anthony said.
Anthony moved to the United States from the Caribbean island of Antigua when she was 7. She began teaching high school biology at Farmingdale in September 1999 and about four years later was recruited to take an active role in the union. A series of positions with increasing responsibilities led to the presidency.
Leading the union is a balancing act, Anthony said. For instance, teachers chafe at the results of some standardized tests being tied to their job performance. They also seek limits on class size. School districts, meanwhile, are constrained by state mandates and tax caps.
"Generally in our district, we have good relations with the administration and the board," she said.
Anthony also has to do some personal juggling. Unlike the presidents of some teachers' union locals who only handle union duties, she remains a classroom teacher.
She still teaches biology in the mornings, creating lesson plans and grading before tending to members' requests and other union issues in the afternoons.
For Anthony, union work is time-consuming, but indispensable.
"It comes down to a big factor of social justice," she said.
— Ken Schachter
STATE UNION MEMBERSHIP
The number of union members across New York has fluctuated in the past 10 years.
2009: 2.02 million, or 25.2% of all workers
2010: 1.96 million, or 24.2
2011: 1.91 million, or 24.1
2012: 1.84 million, or 23.2
2013: 1.99 million, or 24.4
2014: 1.98 million, or 24.6
2015: 2.04 million, or 24.7
2016: 1.94 million, or 23.6
2017: 2.02 million, or 23.8
2018: 1.87 million, or 22.3
SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau