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AFSCME and DC 37 honor labor legend Lillian Roberts with scholarship in her name

Lillian Roberts speaks as DC 37 Executive Director Henry Garrido (left) and AFSCME President Lee Saunders look on. Photo: District Council 37
AFSCME and DC 37 honor labor legend Lillian Roberts with scholarship in her name
By Pete Levine ·

AFSCME President Lee Saunders, District Council 37 Executive Director Henry Garrido and others honored an AFSCME legend last week – former DC 37 Executive Director and International Executive Board member Lillian Roberts.

During an event last Thursday, they reflected on her remarkable career and announced an endowed scholarship in her name through the City University of New York’s (CUNY) School of Labor and Urban Studies.

“Lillian is such an unbelievable woman in the work that she has done and the accomplishments that she has made,” Saunders said. “We wanted to set up a scholarship that would reward family members or members of AFSCME going to CUNY, giving them some help so they could finish their schooling. So maybe one day we can have another Lillian Roberts on our hands.”

Roberts’ roots in the labor movement began in 1947, in Chicago. Working as a nurse’s aide, she fought for her fellow workers at a University of Chicago hospital nursery and was chosen as the shop steward of their AFSCME Local, launching a career that would span seven decades.

Her talents were recognized by another New York labor icon, Victor Gotbaum, who was then organizing in Chicago and would later helm DC 37. Roberts began organizing mental hospital workers in Illinois, which would serve as a springboard to a position on AFSCME’s International Executive Board in 1964, where she was the first Black woman to serve as an international vice president.

The following year, she moved to New York and joined DC 37, where she would focus on organizing health care workers.

A founding member of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Roberts became a leader in fighting for health care workers’ rights. She was jailed for 11 days in 1968 by then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller for leading a successful strike on behalf of state institutional hospital workers.

Throughout her tenure as associate director and, later, executive director of DC 37 (she was elected in 2002), Roberts continued to organize workers, fought against outsourcing and privatization, negotiated historic contracts and, in various leadership roles in the labor movement, remained a tireless advocate for workers.

“Without Lillian Roberts, there would be no Education Fund at DC 37,” said Executive Director Garrido. “Without Lillian Roberts, this union would have no Welfare Fund. I am a testimony of the influence she had on many of our leaders.”

The Lillian Roberts Endowed Scholarship will provide two annual scholarships of $1,250 to students who best exemplify Roberts’ commitment to equality, diversity or social justice for women. One scholarship will be awarded to a DC 37 member (or their child), and one will be awarded to an AFSCME member (or their child).

“I am honored to have this scholarship named for me,” said Roberts. “Even though I am retired, my mind is always about ‘What you are doing?’ and how important it is to do what can be done right here. I’m just grateful and hope this scholarship brings out the love, admiration and care future students will have for our brothers and sisters.”

Scholarship recipients will attend classes in the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, which offers undergraduate and graduate degree programs designed to meet the needs of working adults as well as traditional-age college students who seek to learn more about the challenges confronting poor and working-class populations in the workplace and in the community.

To learn more about Lillian Roberts’ remarkable career, visit the AFSCME archives at The Walter P. Reuther library.

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