Part 6 in a series
on DC 37 history
Building the best benefits
graduated as Licensed Practical Nurses when Lillian Robertss career ladder
real for hospital workers.
By ALFREDO ALVARADO
Workers in District
Council 37 enjoy the most comprehensive union benefits program in the country,
but many members know little about the struggles and sacrifices, the creativity
and commitment, that built todays wide array of benefits.
employees had few benefits until Motor Vehicle Operators struck for two weeks
in 1962 and social service workers walked the picket lines for the frigid month
of January 1965. Their guts and determination won the first union welfare funds
and 100 percent city-paid health insurance for nonuniformed employees. A 1971
strike over pension issues tied city traffic up in knots and won health coverage
As executive directors Jerry Wurf and Victor Gotbaum welded
a loose collection of locals into a strong and cohesive council, DC 37 merged
dozens of separate welfare benefits into one financially powerful fund that took
its current name, the DC 37 Health and Security Plan, on Jan. 1, 1970.
plan started with 25,000 members and by its first summer covered 50,000 with dental,
disability, drug, optical, and life insurance benefits. In 1971, the plan paid
out $1 million to members.
The seeds of the unions education program
were planted on the road to DC 37s most important organizing victory, the
December 1965 vote that brought 20,000 hospital employees under the unions
Former union secretary
Roseanne Pizzonia (right) was one of the first members to use DC 37s new
prescription drug card.
dead-end jobs to hope
DC 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts,
then associate director, led the drive with wisdom rooted in her background as
a Nurses Aide and deep concern that so many hospital workers were stuck in dead-end
jobs with no promotional opportunities.
In addition to better pay
and working conditions, she offered them hope for a better future through training
and upgrading programs. The first classes by the new DC 37 Education Department
were for Nurses Aides who worked to become Licensed Practical Nurses, and in 1968
422 members graduated from the intense 14-month course with state licenses.
education program grew to include levels from the three Rs through
high school equivalency as well as classes to help city workers pass civil service
tests and climb the career ladder. It reached a historic milestone in 1972 when
DC 37 Campus of the College of New Rochelle opened its doors to admit the
first 160 members.
According to then- Education Director Bernard Rifkin,
A dream of American labor for more than 140 years was realized, as
DC 37 became the nations first union with a fully accredited college on
its premises. By May 2009, 3,177 union members had received their college degrees
Going beyond medical and educational benefits, the union created
its Personal Services Unit in 1971 to help members with emotional and family problems,
stress, and alcohol and drug abuse. In 2008, the units social workers helped
When PSU staff found that many members and union families
faced problems that required legal help, DC 37 pioneered the labor movements
first prepaid legal services program with a grant from the Ford Foundation for
a pilot project to provide legal services for members. In 1977 the Municipal Employees
Legal Services Plan opened its doors.
The high cost of legal services
effectively denied working people their rights, said former DC 37 General
Counsel Julius Topol, who served as the first head of MELS. In 2008, MELS opened
over 11,000 cases and provided free expert legal assistance for problems such
as dealing with an unreasonable landlord, becoming a citizen, getting divorced
or drawing up a will.
DC 37 has continued to explore new benefit possibilities.
The latest benefit addresses members need for affordable housing in one
of the nations costliest real estate markets.
Lillian Roberts launched the Municipal Employees Housing Program in 2005 in partnership
with Neighborhood Housing Services and the city Dept. of Housing Preservation
and Development. MEHP offers members preferences for getting affordable rental
apartments and help in becoming homeowners, including financial assistance with
down payments and home buyer education.
There is probably no other
program like this in the country for union members, said Roberts. Last year,
hundreds of members were working with MEHP on the path toward mortgage refinancing
or home ownership, and 61 union families achieved the dream.
members work hard to keep New York City running, said Roberts. They
deserve the very best benefits, and DC 37 has worked for more than a half century
to provide exactly that.