Amsterdam News Staff
Local and national labor leaders and union advocates will be honored yet again at the New York Amsterdam News’ fourth annual labor breakfast. The list of honorees includes American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, 32BJ President Hector Figueroa, Transit Workers Union Local 100 Secretary-Treasurer Earl Phillips and actress Cynthia Nixon.
Weingarten’s name is instantly recognizable to native New Yorkers. Before being elected AFT president in 2008, she served for 12 years as the president of the United Federation of Teachers, representing almost 200,000 educators in New York City’s public school system, in addition to home care providers and workers in the health, law and education industries.
A president of the AFT, Weingarten represents 1.6 million workers who are teachers; paraprofessionals and school-related personnel; higher education faculty and staff; nurses and other health care professionals; local, state and federal government employees; and early childhood educators. As AFT president, she created the AFT Innovation Fund, an initiative to support sustainable, innovative and collaborative education reform projects developed by members and their local unions. She generated a model to transform teacher evaluations from a way of simply rating teachers to a tool for continuous improvement and feedback. She also led an AFT committee that called for all prospective teachers to meet a high entry standard so that they’re prepared when they enter the classroom on day one.
The year 2013 was good to Weingarten. The New York Observer named her one of the most influential New Yorkers of the past 25 years, while Washington Life magazine included her on its 2013 “Power 100” list of influential leaders.
In 2012, Figueroa was elected president of 32BJ Service Employees International Union, the largest property services union in the country. His union represents more than 145,000 property service workers in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.
A native of Ponce, Puerto Rico, Figueroa’s parents were teachers who fought to form a union at work. While his parents helped get the organizing ball rolling in 1974, it wasn’t for another 24 years that the teachers won collective bargaining rights via SEIU, where Figueroa was serving as the union’s organizing director for Puerto Rico. Figueroa came to the United States in 1982 after being banned from university for participating in a student strike. His work ranged from working with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers (now known as Workers United) to joining SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign and eventually becoming the secretary-treasurer of 32BJ. Figueroa and the union’s profile have been raised in recent years because of their participation in the fight for immigrant and worker rights in New York City.
TWU Local 100 President John Samuelsen swore in Phillips as the union’s secretary-treasurer this past February. Phillips is anther honoree who’s organizing work began in another country.
A native of Barbados, Phillips worked for a tractor and equipment company before becoming a member of the Barbados Workers Union. But he felt a calling to come to America via influence from his mother and sisters who were already here. Phillips moved to the country in 1987 and immediately found work in an auto repair shop. However, he longed for a job with better benefits. That led to him finding work with the Metropolitan Transit Authority in the early 1990s as a bus mechanic. Phillips decided to work on becoming a union leader in the mid-1990s to try and better understand the meaning behind “reclassification” and “layoffs” that his fellow workers were experiencing. While he did not win an election for union president in the 2000s, Samuelsen liked his approach and pushed for him to move up to his current position.
While younger audiences might only recognize her from the popular “Sex and the City” TV series and movies, Nixon’s accomplished acting career goes back decades. The Emmy, Tony and Grammy award winner made her film debut at the age of 12 playing opposite Tatum O’Neal in “Little Darlings.” At 16, she played a role in the award-winning film “Amadeus.” While a freshman at Barnard College, Nixon worked on Broadway with prominent roles in the productions of “Hurlyburly” and “The Real Thing.” However, it’s her work outside of the art world that brings her to the labor breakfast.
Nixon’s been an advocate for public school education, women’s reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights and workers’ rights. She played a significant role in her advocacy for Bill de Blasio during his mayoral campaign and has been a staunch advocate for local unions.