When you listen to Earl Phillips, the new secretary-treasurer for Transit Workers Union (TWU) Local 100, you notice that he states things matter-of-factly. It comes with the territory. Phillips is the old-school story of the American Dream realized.
It takes hard work, lucky breaks and a keen awareness of those around you to realize that dream. Phillips has all three traits.
While not a native of America, Phillips had connections to unions and labor work in his home country of Barbados. “I am a mechanic by trade,” he told the AmNews. “I worked with one of the bigger mechanics in Barbados.”
While working for a tractor and equipment company, Phillips became a member of the Barbados Workers Union. But over 20 years ago, a longing for family ties pushed him north to a new land.
“My mom and sisters were here and they were the ones who influenced me to give this country a try,” said Phillips. The “here” he refers to is New York. “So at the age of 27, I decided to listen to my mom. We were apart since I was about 6 or 7, and I wanted to develop a relationship with my mom.”
Phillips made the move to America in 1987 and in a short period of time started his own small auto repair shop in Brooklyn. In his shop he started listening to his customers and their personal situations and learned something about himself.
“You meet people from all different walks of life and jobs, and people start to tell you about health insurance and health coverage,” said Phillips. “You eventually start thinking about growing older. You’re young and you’re hungry and you always want more.”
Phillips started thinking about a job with proper health coverage and eventually took the exam issued by the Metropolitan Transit Authority in the early 1990s and got a job as a bus mechanic. It was there he had his awakening that he shouldn’t just be a union member, he needed to be a union leader.
“I had just given up my business in 1995 because I didn’t have a choice,” said Phillips after devoting his full attention to his new job. “In 1996, we had reclassifications and layoffs. That was when I saw the need to get involved in union information, because I didn’t understand what everything meant. That’s when I really started listening and getting involved and going to union meetings.”
In the 2000s, Phillips put together a team and ran against then-TWU President Roger Toussaint and lost. He worked as a safety representative for six years but decided to come back to the shop and work on buses.
“I didn’t like the politics,” Phillips said. But John Samuelsen, Local 100 president, liked him.
“Earl is a man of great integrity,” Samuelsen said in a statement. “He is devoted, first and foremost, to this union’s membership. I am confident that he will lend a sure and steady hand to Local 100 as we begin a difficult contract fight.”
But the first fight Phillips had to endure was cleaning up some unfortunate issues that arose in the previous secretary’s tenure. While he told the AmNews that making sure everything was up to Department of Labor standards was tough, he feels the union is back on the right track.
“Things are looking a lot better now–more positive,” said Phillips. “It’s a learning experience. This work is very serious work, it’s long hours. It’s nothing to take lightly. Everyone needs to be diligent.”
So far, so good for Phillips. So far, so good for TWU.