LABOR DAY: 3 Union Leaders Look Back on Their Road

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The Public Record asked prominent labor leaders in the Delaware Valley region to tell us how they came to be who they are. Three of them found the time, at summer’s end and amid preparations for Philadelphia’s spectacular Labor Day Parade, to share their thoughts on their careers.

We asked them: “How did you first become involved in your craft or profession? How did you move into union activism? Any reflections on your journey from where you were to where you are now?”

Here’s what they had to say.

ROBERT NAUGHTON, Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters Tri-State Regional Manager

Robert Naughton

I grew up in a union household. My father, Robert E. Naughton, was a union carpenter and I looked up to him and wanted to follow in his footsteps. When I graduated from high school, I took the apprenticeship test and started out as a carpenter right out of high school for Austin Construction. My first job was doing concrete forms for American Olean Tile’s office building in Lansdale, Pa.

Union activism has been an important thing for me since I started out as a union carpenter when I was 18. From the beginning, when I worked with my tools, I always wanted to take things into my own hands and be involved in the decision-making process, instead of having someone else make those decisions for me.

I always went to my union meetings and was always active in my local. When I graduated from my apprenticeship, I became an alternate delegate to Metropolitan Regional Council and eventually became president of Local 1595 and held various positions within this former Local. I was an organizer for the former MRC in 1996 and became the Director of Organizing in 1999. When the MRC was absorbed into the NRCC in 2016, I was elevated to the position of Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters’ tri-state regional manager.

It has been an incredible journey from starting out at 18 years old as an apprentice carpenter. I’ve been working in the union for 38 years and am very proud to be a union carpenter. One of the proudest things for me is being able to change the lives of working carpenters from getting them into the trade and working hard for them to ensure that they make a good salary and get good healthcare and retirement benefits, so they can take care of themselves and their families.

My son, Taylor, is a 3rd-generation union carpenter and I’m so proud that he’s continuing the legacy of our union carpenter family.

HENRY NICHOLAS, National Union of Hospital & Health Care Employees President, District 1199C President

Henry Nicholas

Although I was born in the South, I began my career as a hospital worker in Manhattan in 1957.

I was lucky to be connected to a progressive leader and moved swiftly up the ranks. Two years later, I led my co-workers into joining what was then Local 1199 of the Drug & Hospital Workers Union, which grew into NUHHCE.

I moved around the nation organizing workers for my union. I led the 113-day hospital strike in Charleston, S. C., which gave birth to the struggle for Black civil rights in the South and drew national attention. I wrote major checks for Martin Luther King, Jr. and for the Emmett Till defense. When NUHHCE was founded in 1973, I became its secretary-treasurer.

I arrived in Philadelphia in 1973, during the early Rizzo years, to create Local 1199C. We now represent more than 15,000 health-care workers in the Philadelphia and South Jersey region.

At 81 years of age, I have never had a vacation. My work is what I am proud to have lived for.

fred wright, American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees District Council 47 President

Fred Wright

My father was a steelworker, so I took to labor activism naturally.

I began in Philadelphia with AFSCME Local 1739, which represents the employees of private nonprofit social-service agencies. It is one of DC 47’s eight local unions. While people often think of us as a “government union,” Most DC 47 locals are in the private sector, although all provide public service. That was 35 years ago.

I think that the organized labor movement is at a crucial moment today with regards to educating current workers on the value of the contracts their union wins for them. They have become accustomed to the benefits that we earned for them in decades past and do not always understand these did not come automatically, but were hard won from their employers.

Those early negotiations were made easier and more effective because ordinary workers knew what they were getting and knew they deserved more than that. But younger workers have begun their jobs with many those early gains taken for granted.

Thirty-five years ago, members were more engaged. In this era, we have to re-engage them. It is a fight every day to get them to appreciate the seriousness of our mission. But they must learn that good pay, good benefits and good working conditions do not just show up on their own; you must fight for them every day.

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