Lillian Roberts, Labor Leader

Lillian Roberts with Sen. Hillary Clinton

hide captionIn February, Lillian Roberts received a certificate in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the labor community. On hand to deliver it: Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Clarence Elie-Rivera/Public Employee Press DC 37

When most of us think of organized labor, a few famous faces come to mind. Eugene Debs, maybe? Jimmy Hoffa, absolutely. And don't forget Marlon Brando's bloodied mug from On the Waterfront. But what about Lillian Roberts?

Little about Roberts fits the labor leader stereotype. She's a woman, for one. She's also African American and pushing 80. But there's one trait this former New York labor commissioner does share with America's iconic labor leaders: she drives a hard bargain.

Roberts got her start in the rough-and-tumble labor world as an organizer for nurses at the University of Chicago Hospital. A colleague then lured her to New York City, where she helped him run District Council 37. DC 37 (as it's known) is a union affiliate of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) — the largest in the city.

Roberts spent the next two decades behind the scenes at AFSCME until she left to work in private industry. But a far-reaching corruption scandal rocked DC 37 in her absence, and Roberts' labor colleagues asked her to return to the union — this time, to run it. In 2002, she did just that.

Roberts' tenure at DC 37 got off to a rocky start. When the union's board tried to cut her pay, she sued them for sex, age and race discrimination. But the board settled before the case ever made it to court. In January, Roberts won re-election by a landslide and recently negotiated an unusually sweet, new wage contract for her members.

Roberts tells Tony Cox about her groundbreaking career.

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