Lillian Roberts, Labor Leader Organized labor conjures many stereotypes, but 79-year-old powerhouse Lillian Roberts defies them all. She's the head of New York City's enormous District 37, a union affiliate of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Lillian Roberts, Labor Leader

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TONY COX, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya.

Throughout March, NEWS & NOTES has profiled women in leadership from the Senate to the sanctuary. Earlier this week we said we were wrapping our Leading Ladies series with Brigadier General Clara Adams-Ender, and we thought we were. Then our producer stumbled across one last story we just had tell.

When I think of organized labor, I think of a man's world, remember Marlon Brando slugging it out in "On The Waterfront"? I don't think of 79-year-old Lillian Roberts necessarily, but I suppose I should because she is a former New York State labor commissioner and current head of New York City's District Council 37. Now, if the DC37 doesn't mean much to you, it's a union affiliate of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the largest in the city. That means she's responsible for 120,000 members, 50,000 retirees, and a 50-billion - with a B - dollar pension fund.

She's also got quite a poker face, which she used recently to secure an unusually sweet new way to contract for her members. To find out how Roberts made her way through the rough and tumble world of organized labor, she joins me now from NPR's New York bureau.

Lillian, nice to have you.

Ms. LILLIAN ROBERTS (Executive Director, New York City District Council 37): Thank you very much for inviting me.

COX: You started organizing in Chicago, when did you first know that this is the job for me?

Ms. ROBERTS: Well, I knew that it probably was the job for me when I was exploited myself as a nurse's aide. I was a good nurse's aide and I was being exploited and moved all over the place, and we didn't really have rights and we didn't have dignity. And then I wanted to find out exactly - I was paying dues but it was not a closed shop, and I wanted to find out from the shop steward what could we do about this. And the shop steward was very timid, she didn't do anything. I called the central office and they said well perhaps we should have an election for a shop steward. And since all of us was talking about it, they wind up electing me as shop steward. And I was able to use the contract in order to secure my dignity and protect my rights and others', and I felt this is something I'd like to do.

COX: Take us back to when you first got started in labor organizing and management, what was the biggest difficulty that you faced?

Ms. ROBERTS: I think being taken serious. Our management kind of laughed at me and made fun of me, and I think it because he didn't think I was going to do anything. But I had the contract, which was like a bible. I knew that there was steps that one could take, and I began to take the steps all the way down to arbitration, and I won arbitration on this particular managerial person four or five times, and they finally fired him because he was costing them money. He was so busy looking at me and poking fun at me that he couldn't take care of his business.

COX: Do you think he was making fun of you because you were a woman or because you were black, or because you were both?

Ms. ROBERTS: I think it was a combination of many things. He was very well educated man, and he probably thought that that would be enough to outsmart me. And I just kept my eye on the ball and continued to go back repeatedly to ask him, have you considered doing something about this problem. And he would just say I'll see you next week.

And after about two or three weeks, I decided I'm going to bump this up, and so I think it told more about him than it did me. And finally management said that this is terrible, what is going on here? And it's because he wasn't taking me serious, I didn't yell, I didn't scream, I didn't have muscles, I just had the contract and expressed the grievance more or less.

COX: One of the things that the women that we have interviewed so far in the Leading Ladies series has been that they have had to find a way to communicate in a male-dominated world, get their point across, be taken seriously and not yet seem to be too hard, if I'm putting it the right the way. Did you have to do that?

Ms. ROBERTS: Yes, I have to be sensitive to the fears that the individuals that you deal with have too. They don't really know what to do with you, so I tried to explain, I tried to be very patient, tolerant. Then I keep moving and after a while and after a few tussles on the mat, they realized that they have to take me serious. Otherwise, your boss is going to do something that they have because it causes them a lot of problems.

COX: How different is it today for a woman in a leadership role in the labor movement compared to when you started?

Ms. ROBERTS: I think it's quite different because women are aware of their rights and they fight for their rights. And since I started out with AFSCME, women and leadership roles have increased tremendously and they're very effective - they learn, they're patient, and they're good.

COX: Your rise to the top in the labor movement has not been without sacrifice. I know that in 1969 you were jailed for striking by then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller in New York. I also understand that when you moved to New York with your husband, your mother and your sister's three children, that your marriage sort of came apart a year afterwards. Has it been worth the sacrifice and what has been the biggest sacrifice you think you've made for your career in the labor movement?

Ms. ROBERTS: Well, I think that I had to marry the people that I represented rather than one single person because it really dominates a lot of your time. You understand what their problems are and they became - the members that is -very essential to me. I had a big responsibility taking care of them, their whole problem. Because sometimes it's not just a grievance, it's all the things that has brought it about in their family lives. And sometime you neglect your own, and I think that's probably what happened. I didn't have a lot of time, there's only so much time one can give. And when you're starting out, the telephone is always busy because you try to support the shop stewards and show them the meaning of union, you just - your whole family life slowly comes apart.

COX: Did you doubt that it was worth it at some point?

Ms. ROBERTS: Well, now that I look back, I think of it's worthy because it put meaning on my life. I think I was probably born to do something like this because I love people. I want to eliminate as much misery for them as I can, and I do it through the union. It's almost like a religion to me so…

COX: Really?

MS. ROBERTS: Yes, it is.

COX: It's interesting that you would saying that, because at some point you and the union had your difficulties. You actually sued your own board for age, sex, and race discrimination. Why did you do that and how did it wind up?

Ms. ROBERTS: As we went along, the board changed and became more my board. And so they reversed that decision and the case was dropped. It's not something I wanted to do but I was not going to - you've got to be as tough representing yourself as you are with others. And I felt it was wrong, me as a woman coming into this job, being elected by the members and immediately having my salary cut tremendously by $75,000 and no raises within the five years. And one of the policies of the union was to give the same raise that you would be able to achieve for the members.

COX: Now, you were 74 when your union colleagues asked you to come out of retirement to lead the DC37. What was your initial reaction about going back into it, even though you've already said that the movement is a religion for you?

Ms. ROBERTS: The union has been my entire life. When I left as a nurse's aide, I've been in labor for 49 years. And to watch some of the people that I loved and respected to go off to jail because they just had the temptation of, you know, playing around with their treasuries and what have you, and I felt that all of the benefits that we have brought forth was going to be lost because of management would take advantage of the fact that there were problems.

COX: You have been in countless bargaining sessions, sat across the table from some of the most powerful people in government in your city. Is there a difference both as a woman sitting at the negotiating table and negotiating with men than sitting at the table as a woman and negotiating with a woman on the other side?

Ms. ROBERTS: I think that I'm an enigma to men because I don't scream, yell and I don't call them names. I think it's important that parties sitting across the table, regardless of who they are, keep their eye on the problem and what they're trying to resolve rather than the personalities.

So I'm soft-spoken but I should never be taken for granted because I'm planning all the time. I don't get into battles that I don't think I can win. I try to point out if I'm asking for something why it would be to their benefit as well as to the workers' benefit. And I always feel if you got a problem, you should have a proposed solution.

COX: Trade unionism in this country has taken a hit with the dreaded D-word, downsizing, and unions are struggling to find their place in the new increasingly global economy. How do you see unionism fitting in to the future, particularly for women?

Ms. ROBERTS: I think the biggest challenge that labor has is change. The technical changes and things that are coming about as a result of the world is just in changing - our economy, everything. The only thing that I don't like is surprises. If there's going to be change, if there are projected changes, we want input as to how it's going to impact on us so that we can minimize the pain that we will have.

And we've had a lot of change in city government. We'll have more. That's the challenge in leadership. Well, I have 58 presidents that I have to deal with, and many of them like to keep it as it is. And I have to go forward and say, look, if there's going to be change, let's get ahead of it. Let's see how we can benefit by the change. And sometimes they're annoyed with you because they don't really want it. But after it's complete, as long as there's no layoffs and we can do it by attrition and by a training programs, I think it's fine.

COX: As you look across the landscape of your union and labor involvement in New York City, where your union operates, do you see a young Lillian Roberts on the horizon?

Ms. ROBERTS: Yes, I see many. You know, they are learning. I see many of them that are really concerned.

COX: What do you tell them?

Ms. ROBERTS: I will support them and their leadership, and of course they are very active in everything that goes on in the union to the point that many of them would like someday, when I leave, to be the head of the union.

COX: Well, let me ask…

Ms. ROBERTS: It's a lot of responsibility.

COX: Let me ask you, Lillian Roberts, to complete this sentence for me, if you would. When you're talking to these young people, particularly the young women. When you have to deal with a man you always…

Ms. ROBERTS: Be yourself. And understand that they don't understand you and you have to be patient as well.

COX: Lillian Roberts is former New York state labor commissioner and current head of New York City's District Council 37, the union affiliate of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. She is the first African-American woman ever to do so.

A pleasure to have you on, you are truly a leading lady.

Ms. ROBERTS: Thank you very much for permitting me to express my story.

COX: Lillian may be the last of our leading ladies, but you can catch them all again or for the first time on the NEWS & NOTES page at

(Soundbite of music)

COX: Just ahead, the attorney general's former chief of staff points a finger at his boss. That's coming up on the Roundtable. And later, one commentator takes a courageous look at death.

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