Roberts; Union Leader’s Pinnacle

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[Union Leadership]

On a recent October morning Lillian Roberts stood in front of City Hall in New York City, flanked by scores of municipal employees and other union leaders.

She had come to make her case to New York City council members, including the Speaker, Christine Quinn. Roberts, is executive director of DC37, the city’s largest municipal employees’ union, with more than 121,000 members and 51,000 retirees. 

Roberts was on the steps of City Hall to urge the council to lift restrictions that dictate that municipal workers live within one of the City’s five boroughs—Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. The high cost of housing in New York puts her members at a great financial disadvantage, Roberts maintains.

“We want the council to focus on the severity of the problems caused by the current residency rule,” Roberts said, that October 29. “It’s an impediment to the progress of people trying to do a job, seek promotion, serve the Citizens of New York City, and find affordable housing for themselves and their families.”

Roberts calls the City’s regulations “obsolete,” and says lifting residency laws wouldn’t result in a mass influx of non City-residents taking away New York jobs; nor would New York workers suddenly leave for suburban jobs en mass. “The facts show that when residency is lifted there is minimal impact,” she says, noting that the law unfairly burdens workers.

Intro. 452, as the proposal to lift the restriction, now before the City Council is called, would allow City workers to reside in the suburban counties of Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Rockland, Orange and Putnam.

This would allow 45,000 DC37 members and thousands of other City workers to have the choice of living outside the City—an option now available to 240,000 other City workers, including police, firefighters, sanitation workers and teachers, Roberts notes.

Roberts takes pride in her negotiating skills. Talks with the City, in 2003 and 2004, resulted in a three-year contract settlement which was ratified by 97% of the union membership. The contract provided for retroactive raises and a first-year lump sum of $1,000.

She was first elected to the post of executive director in 2002. For years, she had been a consultant to the union, sharing her labor and organizing expertise. In 2004, she was re-elected to a three-year term, and just this year, the membership again voted her in for another term.

Roberts is determined to win her latest battle, the residency laws, on behalf of her union members—it is the type of battle the spry 79-year old union chief has been waging, ever since her early days in Chicago, some 50 or so years ago.

On November 30, in recognition of Roberts’ tireless battles on behalf of workers over the decades, The Black Star News, will honor her with the “Visionary” award, at the newspaper’s annual awards dinner at Nubian Heritage, in Harlem.

Roberts’ journey to the pinnacle of union leadership has been long, with many obstacles and much hardship along the way. She grew up in a poor family in Chicago; but she had a mother with a strong faith who never allowed the young Roberts to waver. 

“I knew I was a person who could not dance and sing and so I would have to rely on education,” Roberts recalls, referring to those early Chicago days, in an interview at her resplendent offices at 125 Barclay Street, union headquarters, in lower Manhattan. “You either fight or you die—I felt that if I did the right thing, someone would recognize it and give me a chance.”

The positive attitude was almost not enough. After Roberts managed to get into college on an academic scholarship she still had to work long hours to pay for her accommodation and food. Then when her brother joined the military, she had no choice but to drop out of school, only after her first year; the family needed her to become a bread winner.

Roberts eventually landed a job as a nurse’s aide at a Chicago hospital in the early 1960s A few openings had become available because many of the older white employees were leaving to take more lucrative Defense-oriented jobs as the country was gearing for War. Many of the employees that quit were not replaced. The rapid turnover meant that remaining employees were overworked and the hospital was chronically understaffed.

”I found myself not having any weekends off,” Roberts recalls, of being overworked. The turnover also created opportunities: “I found myself supervising,” Roberts adds.

While Roberts’ co-workers seemed resigned to the working conditions, the young woman, who had only recently quit school, would not stand for it—something in her upbringing always pushed her towards seeking a solution.

She was surprised to learn that the employees actually had a shop steward who was supposed to bring their grievances to management—yet the shop steward always sided with management. When Roberts asked the shop steward to tell management about the employees’ woes, she lashed back at her and demanded for an apology. “Not only did I tell her I would not apologize,” Roberts recalls; she gave the shop steward an ultimatum of three days to report their grievances.

Impressed by Roberts’ courage and leadership skills, other co-workers urged her to run for the union post, which she successfully did. “I said ‘Gee, this union thing isn’t bad,’” Roberts recalls, in the interview. It was the beginning of her union life—a life long calling as it’s turned out.

Under Roberts’ leadership, the hospital introduced a new scheduling system, which meant employees would know their shifts well in advance and be able to plan for days or weekends off. She fought for better health benefits for her co-workers. “I was a very effective shop steward,” she recalls.

Roberts says she was able to deliver for her union members by always listening carefully, being able to identify the issues at stake, and then proposing possible solutions. “I like it when people underestimate me,” the soft-spoken Roberts says, with a mischievous smile and with a twinkle in her eyes. “I just sit there and listen—Then I talk.”

Even then there were many bumps along the way; which all became learning experiences, she says. She recalls one early Chicago hospital employees' strike she helped organize, which was not successful. “There were no laws to force management to deal with it,” she remembers. “I vowed that next time I would be better prepared.”

Soon, her reputation for organizing spread. She was tapped by the legendary union leader, Victor Gotbaum, who asked her to work with him. When the national union called Gotbaum to New York City, the nation’s premier union town, he asked Roberts to join him and she did in 1966. 

Roberts enjoys her work—that much is clear from her demeanor and tone, as she narrates the long history. In fact, to describe what Roberts does as work is not fare at all. She lives and breathes union.

It has always been a full-time relationship; meaning, day and night. Roberts discovered early on that she would not be able to maintain two marriages—to her union organizing work and to her husband. “My husband resented that the phone was ringing all the time,” she recalls, of those early Chicago days. “He was just interested in me being his little Dollie.”

The couple did try to maintain their marriage and Roberts husband also came to New York. It was no use—He could not compete with Roberts first love, the union. He eventually retreated back to Chicago and the marriage ended. Later, there was another attempt at marriage; that too did not survive. Today, Roberts has settled on dating. Hopefully, the person in her life won’t try to supplant union work.

When Roberts first arrived in New York, she was not welcomed with open arms. She had to prove her mettle—show that she truly cared for the workers. “I said ‘You don’t realize how much we can accomplish together,’” she recalls. “Today, they know I care about them.”

Roberts was not above getting down and dirty to demonstrate her dedication. She recalls her memorable battles with Jimmy Hoffa’s infamous Teamsters in the 1960s, when Local 371, hospital employees and clerical workers, were trying to organize. “Whoever had them would be able to organize City wide,” she recalls. The Teamsters’ Local 237, led by Bill Lewis, a Hoffa lieutenant, also wanted that prize. 

The Teamsters used all the dirty tricks in the book, she recalls. Sometimes when Roberts was addressing workers, the power in an auditorium would be turned off by Teamsters’ enforcers—they even caused a six month delay in the elections to decide which union would organize the employees, she says.

The heated confrontations with the Teamsters ended up on the streets. “I went out that day and I said ‘We are not taking any more of this,’” Roberts recalls, referring to one of the confrontations. After exchanging harsh words a rival union organizer, Roberts recalls, she was soon exchanging blows, with the woman. “We were rolling on the ground,” she recalls, with a hearty laugh. “There were little kids standing there watching us and yelling ‘Whup her ass sister. Whup her ass.’”

The Teamsters got the message—Roberts and her colleagues were not to be pushed around. “From that point on, there were no more fights,” she recalls.

Even after the elections, the Teamsters would not concede. “They even tried to toss out some votes. We had to call the police. We won by 100,000 votes. It took us a year to get certified even after we won,” Roberts recalls.

With the victory, which now gave Roberts’ group the ability to organize City wide, she embarked on a mission which was dear to her heart—education. She remembered how poverty had dashed her dreams as a girl—although she later went on to earn her degree, after she started working.

“I said ‘Why can’t we have educational programs that can take us from one level to the other?’” she recalls asking. Roberts even got tutors to help union members prepare for exams. “So nurses’ aids could become registered nurses; to give people the opportunity to move forward.” She recalls that 97% of the workers that took the examination passed. “It was one of the most successful programs,” she recalls.

Thousands of union workers through the years have elevated their professional careers through the education programs and scholarships that Roberts promoted. The union pays 80% of tuition for members Union members that want to pursue college degrees. 

“We changed the face of the union,” Roberts adds, with evident pride. “If I could find Black people, I would tell them to take classes---Somebody gave them dignity.”

“You don’t know whether you’ve got a doctor or a genius,” Roberts says, explaining why she’s always believed that education is the ticket for surmounting hardship. “Because one is born into poverty it doesn’t mean you cannot achieve much in life.”

Even after all these years, Roberts says there is still much work to be done on behalf of her co-workers, referring to her mission to lift the residency restrictions and other projects such as child care for union members and increasing affordable housing stock.

She is confident that a combination of City and corporate funding will soon make her dream of creating day care centers in every borough, a reality. She is working with young entertainment artists to organize a fund raising for the day care projects; she was not ready to disclose the artists’ names yet.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whom Roberts says she has a good working relationship with, is supportive. DC37 Affordable Housing Program, which was launched in 2005, allows her union members and other City workers preference for 5% of units in City-sponsored lotteries for affordable homes and apartments; down payment grants through the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development; and, homebuyer training and education through Neighborhood Housing Services.

Robert is also a champion of cost saving. A white paper prepared by the union identified $3 billion in possible savings by eliminating consultancy work. Some of the cost-saving proposals adapted by City agencies resulted in savings and DC37 members were rewarded with an additional 1% raise in 2005.

Is there life after the union? Sure—Roberts even hints at wanting to travel; maybe do some teaching; maybe help build schools in Africa. She has also spotted two of her colleagues, including a female, whom she believes will do an excellent job leading the union when her time to walk into the sunset arrives.

Roberts says that she has always been driven by passion to help co-workers and union members. She recalls that even when she clashed with the shop steward at the Chicago hospital those many years ago, she was driven by the desire to improve working conditions. “It was never personal,” Roberts recalls. “It was always in the interest of my co-workers.”

Years later, when the former shop steward had been terminally ill with cancer, she asked that Roberts visit her at her hospital bed. Roberts did.

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