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The incomparable Basil Paterson

1199Seiu | , George Gresham President | 6/6/2013, 4:01 p.m.
This column is usually devoted to issues of concern to members of 1199SEIU and working...
George Gresham, President 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East

This column is usually devoted to issues of concern to members of 1199SEIU and working people in general. Rarely does it focus on one individual. This month, I'm making an exception for someone for whom I, 1199ers and all New Yorkers owe a debt of gratitude: the honorable Basil Alexander Paterson.

Last month I had the privilege of speaking at Paterson's lifetime achievement and 87th birthday celebration in Manhattan. I was in the company of scores of political, labor, business, faith and community-based leaders. The celebration was also a benefit for the 1199SEIU Bill Michelson Home Care Education Fund, a 501(c)(3) and unique labor-management partnership that provides educational, training and employment services for home care workers, most of whom are women and immigrants. The fund helps home care workers improve their academic and job skills and prepare for upgrading to advanced health care positions. That training translates to improved overall patient care and helps clients, especially the elderly, live independently in the comfort and safety of their homes.

The celebration helped establish the Basil Paterson Scholarship Fund for home care workers. It is fitting that the scholarship bears Paterson's name because he as much as anyone has helped shape the campaigns to elevate the status and conditions of home care and other health care workers. Paterson has done much of the same for teachers, transit workers, civil servants and others. Over the years, he has worked as a trusted advisor and negotiator, often serving as the key link between labor and management during 11th hour talks.

A son of Harlem, Paterson's journey is as inspirational as the man himself. He was born to West Indian immigrants and attended local Harlem schools. His junior high, Cooper, was long considered one of the roughest. He attended my alma mater, DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. After serving honorably in the Army during the end of WWII, Paterson completed his undergraduate work at St. John's University--at that time in Brooklyn--before earning a law degree from St. John's Law School.

He knows the city, its people and our struggles. From an early age, he began facing the usual insults, indignities and trials of African-Americans. Several years ago, he told Bob Herbert of the New York Times that employers of his first job at a Manhattan wholesale house, in order to keep the company's annual Christmas party segregated, paid Paterson and the other African-American packers not to attend the event.

Those experiences toughened him for his journey. His positions, titles and awards are too numerous to mention, but some of his career highlights are:

Elected to the New York state Senate in 1965.

Selected as Democratic candidate for New York state lieutenant governor in 1970.

Appointed New York City deputy mayor for labor relations and personnel in 1978.

Appointed New York secretary of state in 1982.

It's in his position as co-chair of labor practice at the firm Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, P.C., that Paterson has helped hammer out groundbreaking labor-management agreements. We at 1199SEIU would not think of entering any major negotiations without Paterson. He not only understands and knows how to communicate labor's concerns, he's equally skilled at cutting through the fog of negotiations and determining the real bottom lines for both parties.

He has helped labor and management study and explore fresh approaches to problems whose solutions are in the interest of both. Through Paterson's help, for example, 1199SEIU and the League of Voluntary Hospitals and Nursing Homes have joined forces numerous times to win important legislation and funding at various levels of government.

Paterson's excellence also extends to his personal life. His run for lieutenant governor was not successful, but his son's was. David Paterson went on to become the first African-American governor of our state. David Paterson describes a father who, although he led a busy, demanding life as a public official, always found quality time for his family.

And we at 1199SEIU consider Paterson one of the most beloved members of our family. To paraphrase, if we have been able to see far, it's because we have stood on the shoulders of giants. Basil A. Paterson is our giant.