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labor George Gresham Wants Labor Leaders To Support Younger Organizers

The 1199SEIU president talked about how the old guard can learn from people like Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls.

1199SEIU President George Gresham,Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Earlier this year, George Gresham was reelected to his sixth term leading 1199SEIU, the powerful health care workers union with nearly 450,000 members.

Gresham joined the union in 1975 when he was hired as a housekeeper at Presbyterian Hospital. Over the 40-year arc of his career, he has served as an organizer, vice president, executive vice president and secretary-treasurer at the union. He was first elected president in 2007, and 1199SEIU is now the largest health care union in the country.

1199SEIU members were on the front lines throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, which killed more than 1 million Americans. There hasn’t been a registry that tracked the number of health care workers who died from COVID-19. However, a joint reporting project by the Guardian and Kaiser Health News documented that over 3,600 health care workers died in that first year of COVID-19 when personal protective equipment was in short supply and vaccines had yet to be fully deployed.

Gresham’s union recently hosted the New York City Central Labor Council’s Labor Day breakfast that featured remarks from U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh. City & State caught up with Gresham after that gathering, which was closed to the press. 

I heard that you spoke with a lot of passion this morning at the breakfast about how important it was for New York state’s labor establishment to embrace Chris Smalls and his independent Amazon Labor Union despite what might be some generational tensions. Can you expand on that?

We have to remember that we are now in the role of elders and you know a good elder not only gives advice but also sits back and allows the younger, or the apprentice, to learn their way and be patient with them. Sometimes, there’s no question, the youth, because of their militancy and impatience, want to rush the system and we have to expect that. I mean it takes that kind of energy to be willing to take on an organization like Amazon. But (what) we can’t allow is for that to divide us as labor leaders. I would say I don’t know about all of us, but many of us started out the same way. We were impatient. We wanted change and we wanted change right away. We need to remember that because I feel that if the union leaders in New York – which is considered a labor state – don’t support them (the Amazon Labor Union), it’s going to be much harder everywhere else in the country. That makes it all the more important and puts the responsibility on us to support them.