Stanley Hill (274956)
Credit: Contributed

The former leader of the biggest public union in New York City has passed away.

Former District Council 37 Executive Director Stanley Hill died Friday, Jan. 25, in Queens of complications from pneumonia. Hill spent the last half of the 20th century serving as an iconic symbol of union activism, of union political might and of the local labor movement as a whole.

“We are deeply saddened by the passing of our brother, retired DC 37 Executive Director Stanley Hill,” read DC 37’s statement. “According to our union newspaper, Stanley’s union activism began in 1959, when he became a shop steward shortly after joining the city workforce as a caseworker at what was then the Department of Welfare. He was working at the Harlem Center when welfare employees went on strike for 28 days in the winter of 1965. The strike led the city to review its labor relations procedures and ultimately a law was passed to ensure real collective bargaining between the city and the unions.”

A New York native, Hill was born in the South Bronx, but grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He attended college at Iona on an athletic scholarship. He wanted to become a teacher after graduation, but a lack of opportunities led him to a job as a welfare caseworker.

Hill devoted his adult life to labor activism. In 1970, he was elected president of Social Service Employees Union Local 371, where he developed a working partnership with the then executive director, Victor Gotbaum. That working partnership led to Gotbaum picking Hill to become the associate director of DC 37 in 1981.

During an interview on WCBS-TV’s “Newsmaker” show in 1987, Hill said he became a union activist because “working conditions were bad.” He added, “They were very bad, and I made an effort to improve them through my union. Our union has made tremendous strides to improve the condition of workers in the city of New York.”

That same year, Hill became the executive director of DC 37 succeeding Gotbaum. Hill was the first Black executive director of the union and served until 1999, when he was forced to step down amid scandals involving allegations of local union presidents stealing money from unions and a five-year contract agreement that included a two-year pay freeze.

During his tenure, however, Hill helped the union throw its weight behind the 1988 presidential candidacy of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who finished second behind eventual Democratic Party presidential candidate Michael Dukakis in the New York primary. Under his leadership, the union endorsed then-Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins for mayor, helping him become the first Black mayor of New York City. In the mid-1990s, Hill established a coalition to convince then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani to not privatize Coney Island Hospital. Hill also convinced the New York State Legislature to increase pension benefits for his constituents.

The former DC37 leader’s legacy is solidified. In New York Magazine’s 35th Anniversary issue, Hill was picked as one of their “100 People That Changed New York.” Although their reasoning was negative, the community around Hill would think of his legacy as a positive.

Hill is survived by his wife, Ruby; his sons, Brett and Stanley Jr.; and four grandchildren.