Public Employee Press
Part 8 in a series on DC 37 history 2002
Lillian Roberts takes the helm
LEADING THE FIGHT FOR AFFORDABLE HOUSING: DC 37s Lillian
Roberts with former CLC Director Ed Ott and City Council members
Charles Barron and Vincent Gentile at a 2007 rally to stop the
sale of Stuyvesant Town.
By DIANE S. WILLIAMS
After its powerful parent, AFSCME, helped District Council 37 erase
the scourge of corruption and restore its reputation for integrity, members
wanted new leadership for the new millennium. A broad consensus built
around the beloved former Associate Director Lillian Roberts, who started
her union activism in Chicago as a Nurses Aide, led DC 37s
key organizing drives in the 1960s and participated in the cleanup.
Roberts was well known to DC 37 members for her aggressive leadership,
her insistence that management treat all city workers with respect and
her consistent focus on providing the best services and benefits for members.
On Feb. 26, 2002, she was unanimously elected executive director.
Roberts took office facing the toughest political climate to confront
any DC 37 leader in history. A right-wing Republican took over the White
House, a conservative was governor and a billionaire businessman occupied
City Hall. Massive budget cuts threatened public services and members
The policies many Republicans had adopted attacked the safety net
of vital social services our members provide, said Roberts. President
George W. Bushs war in Iraq decimated federal funds and the state
slashed aid for health care and education, welfare and more.
Fighting contracting out
The city started contracting out more, Roberts explained,
handing taxpayers dollars to private businesses and all but
abandoning public services. Fighting back, Roberts issued white
papers that documented the citys vast contracting waste and its
shadow government of private consultants who did the same work as municipal
workers, but were paid much more. The 2009 white paper exposed the $9
billion the city is spending on contracts as it lays off public employees
In almost eight years as executive director, Roberts and DC 37 have led
grassroots coalitions in battles to save public hospitals, win federal
funds for public housing and improve the Workers Compensation program.
When job cuts took place, the union pressed agencies to redeploy laid-off
members to other city work, and the DC 37 Health and Security Fund extended
benefits to unemployed members.
Under her leadership, DC 37 negotiated two economic agreements that gave
members raises totaling 9.42 percent and 8.18 percent, setting the pattern
for other civilian unions. The union also won the right to represent 2,600
Job Training Participants; DC 37 constantly pushes the city to hire them
after they complete their training.
With members facing a shortage of affordable housing in one of the nations
most expensive cities, Roberts established a new benefit. The Municipal
Employees Housing Program has already helped hundreds of city workers
buy homes by providing ownership and budgeting classes as well as grants
and low-interest mortgage loans. MEHP, the most extensive housing program
provided by any union, also helps union members find rental apartments
and avoid foreclosure.
The housing crunch also sparked the drive Roberts led to change the residency
rule to give members the right for the first time in 25 years to live
outside the five boroughs. This struggle for parity with uniformed employees
ended in a tremendous victory Feb. 11 when the City Council voted 501
to override Mayor Bloombergs veto and lift the residency restriction.
After years of Off-Track Betting Corp. losses under an unfair distribution
formula, the mayor threatened to close the New York City parlors and fire
1,500 Local 2021 members, who he called bookies. With the
leadership of Local 2021, Roberts lobbied lawmakers and Gov. David Paterson,
who put OTB under state jurisdiction. The union saved the jobs and continues
to fight to protect members as OTB restructures.
DC 37 is currently pressing to keep the Dept. of Citywide Administrative
Services from undermining the civil service system, because our
members deserve real opportunities for fair employment and advancement,
She also guided the unions recent implementation of a contractual
panel to review ways to bring work in-house.
Our votes count
With the election of Lillian Roberts in 2002, District Council 37 entered
a new period of progress as its bargaining strength, political clout and
benefits expanded apace. Members faith in the union reached a high
point this year as 1,500 joined DC 37s Green Machine of political
action volunteers on Nov. 3.
The city is very fortunate to have a loyal workforce who know their
jobs and do them well, Roberts said. We are the first responders
on the front lines who handle terrorist attacks, anthrax, blackouts, the
H1N1 pandemic and more. We are constantly tested and we have never failed
New York City.
Mayors come and mayors go, but our members provide stability and
continuity of services, Roberts said. Politics plays a significant
role in our lives. If taxes are raised or services are cut, that affects
our jobs and our wages, our families and communities, so we are constantly
involved in the struggle for economic and social justice. I will never
let our votes and our voice be ignored.