The Amsterdam News (AmNews) team gathered with labor elites at the newspaper’s 9th Labor Awards Breakfast last Thursday at the 1199SEIU Headquarters in midtown Manhattan. This year’s theme was “Vision to Reality,” celebrating four union leaders who have fought for Black and minority inclusion in the skilled trades.
The AmNews has been publicly unionized since 1936.
Tables were covered in the newspaper’s signature red as union leaders enjoyed a buffet-style breakfast spread. The caterer, Norma Jean Darden, 83, who runs Miss Mamie’s Spoonbread Too on West 110th Street in Harlem, served attendees cajun shrimp and grits with eggs, croissants, and fresh fruit. The former model beamed as people gobbled down the food.
“We at the Amsterdam News relentlessly report each week on why union matters,” said AmNews’ publisher Elinor Tatum.
U.S. Sen Kirsten GilIibrand kicked off the breakfast with a video message, followed by the awards presentations and speeches from the honorees.
This year’s honorees were Gary LaBarbera, president of the New York State and New York City Building and Construction Trades Councils; Lavon Chambers, recently retired executive director of Pathways to Apprenticeship; William Wallace IV, senior acquisitions officer at the Continuum Company; and Priscilla Sims Brown, CEO of Amalgamated Bank.
LaBarbera spoke about how career union jobs are one of the strongest pathways for people in marginalized communities across the city to pull themselves out of poverty and into the middle class. “It is my belief that poverty is at the root of so many of our problems and frankly, the root of our social problems. Poverty leads to despair. Poverty leads to substance abuse,” said LaBarbera.
A Harlem native, Chambers told the story of how he first got into labor organizing with the Harlem Fight Back organization because union construction sites at the time wouldn’t hire Blacks or women. “Once I was taught to have the courage to fight, they taught me to have the wisdom to understand that a labor movement is a class movement, where Blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, men, and women fight side by side,” said Chambers.
Bill Moore photos
Wallace, who is third-generation Harlem, said he was a little disappointed that he’s been working on the same issue of diversity and inclusion since 1993, but graciously accepted the award regardless. He advocated for more residential construction with union jobs, affordable workforce housing, and expanding union ranks.
Brown said that almost everything begins with access to capital and as the head of a labor bank, she is committed to workers’ rights and closing the Black wealth gap. “There was a group of clothing and textile workers who almost exactly 100 years ago got together and very wisely formed a union,” said Brown. “That union quickly realized, not long after these people came together, that income equality was incredibly important but also access to capital could make a difference.”
To close out the festivities, president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) Elise Bryant delivered a powerful and harmonious speech, and led a sing-along among the unions present.
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about politics for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.