Lillian Roberts – New York, New York
For more than a decade, Lillian Roberts was executive director of District Council 37, AFSCME, New York City’s largest public employee union. District Council 37 represents 125,000 public workers in New York City and state, 50,000 retirees, 1,000 job titles and 55 locals. She is also a Vice President of the New York State AFL-CIO, a Vice President of the NYC Central Labor Council, and Co-Chair of the Municipal Labor Committee. She was named one of the 25 most influential black women in business by the Network Journal in 2010.
Ms. Roberts was first elected DC 37 Executive Director on Feb. 26, 2002. She was the union’s first female Executive Director. She was re-elected to a three-year term on Jan. 27, 2004, and again on Jan. 23, 2007.
Ms. Roberts initially focused the union’s energy in 2002 on fighting for a fair contract for members. Ms. Roberts led the DC 37 Bargaining Committee in contract negotiations with NYC to provide raises and safeguard the benefits of the union members who make the city run. The three-year contract settlement, which DC 37 members ratified by 89% in June 2004, provided retroactive raises and a first-year lump sum of $1,000.
In 2006 Ms. Roberts led negotiations for a new contract including a 10% raise, additional funding for the union’s Health and Security Funds, and no concessions. It was considered one of the best contracts in the union’s history and was approved by 97% of the members. An energetic follow-up campaign by DC 37 led to the 2009 lifting of residency restrictions, the final key provision of that contract. Her leadership in the next round of negotiations on the 2008–2010 contract led to raises of 8.18% for the union’s members.
Ms. Roberts has always opposed costly government waste and privatization of public services. DC 37 issued four initial white papers under her guidance identifying up to $3 billion that could be saved by eliminating private consultants and letting city employees do the work. City agencies phased in some of DC 37’s cost-saving proposals, maintaining services while saving millions in taxpayer dollars — productivity gains that led to an additional 1% raise for DC 37 members in 2005.
However, when funding for the city's contract budget increased rapidly after 2005, climbing to a record cost of $9.2 billion for more than 18,000 contracts, DC 37 issued a fifth white paper in 2009 under her leadership titled “Massive Waste in a Time of Need.” The union continues to push the city to cut wasteful spending through a campaign featuring award-winning subway ads, TV and radio spots, testimony and lobbying.
With housing costs rising, Ms. Roberts approached the Mayor with a proposal to give DC 37 members and municipal workers an affordable way to meet the city’s then requirement that they live in the five boroughs. The result, launched in 2005, is the innovative DC 37 Municipal Employees Housing Program. The program allows DC 37 members and city workers preference for 5% of units in city-sponsored lotteries for affordable homes and apartments; down payment grants through the NYC Dept. of Housing Preservation and Development; and homebuyer training and education through Neighborhood Housing Services.
Lillian Roberts has a long, proud history as a unionist. She grew up in the tenements of Chicago’s South Side and became a nurse’s aide. In 1959, she joined the hospital local of AFSCME’s District Council 34 becoming a shop steward and officer. She was hired as a staff rep by AFSCME District Council 19 in Chicago, spearheaded the creation of five locals, and led an organizing drive in four Chicago mental hospitals. In 1965, Ms. Roberts moved to New York from Chicago to build up DC 37’s Hospitals Division. She led the union’s campaign to organize thousands of city hospital workers in 1966.
Ms. Roberts was Associate Director of DC 37 from 1967 to 1981 under Victor Gotbaum. She played a major role in organizing new members and establishing an array of benefits, including the largest union-based adult education program in the U.S. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ms. Roberts brought thousands of workers in federally funded jobs into the union. During her 17-year tenure with DC 37, the union’s ranks skyrocketed from 30,000 to 120,000.
That organizing spirit has remained with her. In 2004, under Ms. Roberts’ leadership, DC 37 won the right to represent 2,600 Job Training Participants, who the union pushes the city to hire upon completion of their training. In 2007, in cooperation with AFSCME, Ms. Roberts established a DC 37 Organizing Department to reach out to non-union workers in DC 37-related titles and bring them the benefits of union membership.
She is a former NYS Commissioner of Labor, who Essence Magazine called “probably the most powerful black person in American labor” and the New York Post named as one of the 30 Most Influential Black New Yorkers in 2007. On February 24, 2006, the United Negro College Fund presented Ms. Roberts with a Distinguished Leadership Award. She was appointed to the NYS September 11th Workers Protection Task Force on March 17, 2006.
In 2010 she received the Triumph Award for Advocacy from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Inc., as well as the Clara Lemlich Public Service Award from Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Memorial leaders for her efforts to reform workers’ compensation and improve occupational safety in New York State.
She also holds a Doctor of Human Letters from the College of New Rochelle. She has received the NAACP Roy Wilkins Award, the First Lady of Labor Award from the Episcopal Churchwomen, and the Freedom Fighter Award from the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, among numerous other awards.