Onika Shepherd at this year's Labor Day parade in New York...

Onika Shepherd at this year's Labor Day parade in New York City earlier this month.  Credit: Kimberly Wessels

From the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA actors union strikes to the ongoing movement to unionize Starbucks coffee shops, organized labor is having a moment — and women, both on Long Island and nationally, are playing a prominent role.

“I see a lot more women trying to get involved with their unions, whether becoming delegates or shop stewards or getting involved in the coalitions,” said Alexandra Ryan, president of Long Island’s chapter of the Coalition of Labor Union Women.

Women like Ana Martinez, who at 21 has already helped organize a Starbucks in Lynbrook. Martinez is among the younger guard of labor organizers on the Island. She joins the ranks of women like Onika Shepherd, Long Island’s political director for 1199SEIU Healthcare Workers East, and Jeannine Devlin, who has succeeded in the male-dominated International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, where she represents National Grid’s clerical workers.

On the national stage, the AFL-CIO, which represents 12½ million workers, has been led by Liz Schuler since 2021 — the first woman to hold the top post at the union. And actor Fran Drescher, who has been the face of the SAG-AFTRA strike throughout the summer, was recently reelected to her position as president of the organization.

On Long Island, more than 26% of employed residents were in unions as of 2021, according to Hofstra University’s Center for the Study of Labor and Democracy.

White men make up about one-third of the union members on the Island, but according to a 2022 Hofstra report, a growing majority of its union workers are now men of color and women. And Long Island women are more likely than men or women in New York City to be union members, the report found.

Ryan said that while male union members often prioritize money, “Women tend to see the stability of a union.” That means prioritizing accessible child care, a pension and good benefits, she said.

At union events, Ryan said, she has seen more women of color in attendance lately, with communities like Brentwood, Wyandanch, Central Islip and Westbury particular hot spots for generating more female union members.

To learn more about this growing trend, Newsday spoke to three female labor leaders on Long Island — Shepherd, Martinez and Devlin — about why they got involved in organized labor and what they believe women can bring to the bargaining table.

Onika Shepherd, 1199SEIU

Onika Shepherd, Long Island political director of 1199SEIU United Healthcare...

Onika Shepherd, Long Island political director of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, at her office in Hicksville. Credit: Danielle Silverman

The country’s renewed interest in unionization and labor rights excites Shepherd, a longtime union leader.

“What’s happening now is the movement of workers feeling like their voices need to be heard,” said Shepherd, 45.

Her union, 1199SEIU Healthcare Workers East, is the largest health care union in the United States. It serves over 400,000 current employees and retirees, including nurses, home care aides, lab workers, clerical staff, transport drivers and pharmacists, in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Florida. A majority of its members are women.

Shepherd has noticed that unions “peaking in organizing at this moment” have more female members and leaders than the traditional male-dominated unions. Over the course of her career, she’s seen how female members are often at the front lines of change.

“Usually a lot of the women spearhead some of these organizing drives [and] are the leaders within them,” she said.

Shepherd, who emigrated from Guyana to the United States as a teenager, comes from a working-class family. Her first job was at a unionized King Kullen in Valley Stream, she said. But her interest in labor activism really began in the early 2000s, when she was an undergraduate student at Queens College, where, she said, she discovered that jobs bring people from different backgrounds together.

“You go on any hospital floor, any nursing home floor, you kind of see the core of what working together really means,” Shepherd said. “That’s what labor has taught me.”

The Rockville Centre resident started at 1199SEIU as an organizer in 2002 and has worked her way up to her current role, which she said focuses on the intersection of politics and community for Long Island’s 1199SEIU members.

The political director stresses that the value of a union is more than meets the eye. She argues that unions can use their clout to advocate beyond the workplace, for example on political issues that are important to members.

“People are recognizing that it’s not only about the amount of sick days that I get, nor what my salary is or what my vacation time is,” Shepherd said. “But I can also talk about the issues that are happening in my children’s schools [and] in the community that I live in.”

One union benefit that Shepherd often sees women taking advantage of is continuing education programs.

“Women are the ones that are more likely to go back to school,” Shepherd said.

Recently, Shepherd’s been thinking about how 1199SEIU can learn from the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s been considering pursuing research into the pandemic’s impact on health care workers’ mental health. She said she sees parallels between the PTSD faced by 9/11 first responders and those who worked on the front lines of the pandemic.

“Some of the men are talking about it,” Shepherd said. “But I can hear more stories are being told by the women about what they’re encountering and what their challenges are and how they’re trying to navigate that years later.”

Shepherd is currently back at Queens College studying for a master’s degree in urban affairs and taking a closer look at how culture shapes policy.

“Where are we putting our attention? Where are we putting our money?” Shepherd said. “Those are all factors that determine where society is heading.”

Even with all that on her plate, she prioritizes coaching other female union members.

“We’ve done really well in the past on mentoring women for leadership positions within the union,” Shepherd said.

More female leaders is a key part of 1199SEIU’s larger mission, she believes.

“I think empowering people [has] always been the core of our work,” Shepherd said. “It’s what we do, and it’s what I’m hoping that we continue to do more of.”

Ana Martinez, Starbucks Workers United 

Starbucks organizer Ana Martinez and colleagues called a one-day strike...

Starbucks organizer Ana Martinez and colleagues called a one-day strike at the Lynbrook shop last month. Credit: Danielle Silverman

Before working at Starbucks, much of what Martinez knew about labor came from conversations between her mother and grandmother, who had emigrated to the United States from Ecuador. They would chat after work about their shifts at Burger King and Dunkin’, she said.

“They were really frustrated, but they grew up in a mindset where it’s like you just do the job,” Martinez said. “You deal with it.”

But Martinez didn’t want to just deal with it.

“I am a very firm believer of leaving things better than [when] you came in,” she said.

The Valley Stream resident, who works as a barista at the Starbucks restaurant in Lynbrook while studying illustration at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, said she was frustrated with conditions at the cafe. So when she started seeing reports on Starbucks unionization efforts upstate, she said, she began chatting with co-workers about doing the same on Long Island.

“We would vent, we’d get angry, we’d get annoyed,” Martinez said. “And I think finally we had enough.”

In February, the Lynbrook Starbucks became the fifth Long Island store to unionize. Female and nonbinary workers led the charge.

“It’s important for other people to see that there’s inclusivity and that women have a voice and have power within the union,” Martinez said.

Even seven months after a vote to unionize, Martinez said, the company still has not adequately responded to union demands, such as offering transportation pay when Lynbrook employees have to sub at other stores. The union ultimately paid for Uber rides, she said — support she argues is key for those working low-paying jobs.

“Most of these locations, you pass a highway to get to them,” Martinez said. “They’re not very accessible through a bike.”

A representative for Starbucks said that the company has tried to set up meetings to discuss contract negotiations but that the union “has failed to respond to or confirm any bargaining session proposed by the company for our Lynbrook store.” Martinez disputes this.

Martinez hopes to take the lessons she has learned while organizing into her future career. For now, she will continue to advocate for herself and other workers.

“You can’t be making a thousand dollars off of one single person and then just give them a penny,” Martinez said.

Jeannine Devlin, IBEW 1049

Jeannine Devlin, union representative for National Grid clerical workers, stands...

Jeannine Devlin, union representative for National Grid clerical workers, stands outside the IBEW Local 1049 headquarters in Holtsville. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Jeannine Devlin is a strong proponent of women entering traditionally male workplaces. After all, it’s what she’s done: She’s in the minority within her union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1049, though she notes that is changing.

“Generally speaking, in the electrical industry, many years ago it was a male-dominated industry,” said Devlin, 52, of St. James. “More and more women have become a part of [it].”

She’s ready for more women to work “side by side with the male population of the industry.”

“I love seeing the growth,” Devlin said.

Her early labor education came from her father’s Yaphank-based garment factory, where the employees were unionized.

“Growing up, I saw unions, but on the employer side,” Devlin said.

As a teenager, she said, she saw it from the employees’ side when she got a job at IBEW Local 1049. The union represents approximately 4,500 electric and gas industry employees on Long Island and Queens. The bulk of their membership comes from National Grid and PSEG, along with workers contracted by companies like Haugland Energy and Altice. IBEW’s international arm represents more than 800,000 utility workers.

Devlin said she started as a receptionist, but she has worn many hats at the union over the past three decades, including office manager and executive assistant to the business manager. In 2012, she took on the role of union benefits funds director. In that position, she said, she helps explain how PSEG and National Grid subcontractors can utilize their benefits like health and welfare plans, annuity plans, two training funds and three vacation funds.

Devlin is also the union representative for National Grid’s clerical workers. As such, she brings that group’s issues to management and engages in collective bargaining.

“It’s something that I have a lot of pride in — that I can actually be that person to speak up for our members,” Devlin said.

She’s especially proud, she said, that she can include a female perspective in those conversations. Her focus, she said, is on workers’ rights.

“I’m very passionate about worker protection, fair wages, job security and the medical benefits . . . for union members,” Devlin said.

In addition to advocating for her fellow employees, she’s married to a 1049 union member, so bargaining agreements affect her entire family.

“I do take that very personally because it’s a part of my life,” Devlin said.

Devlin said she is thrilled that younger workers are taking an interest in organized labor. Her advice to the next generation? Be aware of the “power behind one voice. And how far that can actually take you.”

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