The 2021 New York State Labor Power 100

The union chiefs and worker rights advocates fighting for a stronger New York.

For generations, New York has been at the forefront of the fight for worker rights. In 1909, Clara Lemlich rallied her fellow textile workers in the Uprising of the 20,000 to demand better working conditions. Two years later in 1911, outrage over the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire led to concrete legislative changes to better protect workers. That deadly disaster also spurred Frances Perkins to become a champion for workers, spearheading groundbreaking labor reforms both in New York and then nationally as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s labor secretary. In the decades since, New York labor leaders have been influential players in the state’s political arena – including in present-day fights with corporate behemoths like Amazon and Uber. 

City & State’s New York State Labor Power 100 recognizes labor leaders and worker rights advocates on the front lines of today’s battles, whether it’s raising wages, protecting immigrants, or seeking safe conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. For the first time, we’re dividing the Labor Power 100 into two. Later this year, the New York City Labor Power 100 will highlight those who work primarily or exclusively within the five boroughs. The New York State Labor Power 100 – written and reported in partnership with journalist Trevor Boyer – features individuals in national, statewide, regional or local roles with a significant footprint outside of the five boroughs. 

1. George Gresham

President, 1199SEIU

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George Gresham was the only labor leader named to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 25-member vaccine rollout team in September. Since 2007, he has been president of the highly influential 1199SEIU union, which represents over 450,000 caregivers in hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and more on the East Coast. In February, 1199SEIU nursing home workers at Highland Park in Wellsville won a new three-year contract with wage increases following a three-day strike in September.

2. Andrew Pallotta

President, New York State United Teachers

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Representing over 600,000 faculty and staff at New York’s K-12 schools and universities as president of NYSUT, Andrew Pallotta and his union became key players in one of the great pandemic-era political battles. As local school districts endeavored to resume in-person teaching, NYSUT urged caution at every turn, defending its members while earning the ire of many weary parents. In January, Pallotta continued to insist that districts stop in-person instruction if the locale has 9% or higher COVID-19 positivity for a seven-day period.

3. Gary LaBarbera

President, Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York

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Representing 200,000 workers in various construction-related jobs, the Building and Construction Trades Council advocates for unionized blue-collar workers across the state. This past legislative season, President Gary LaBarbera pushed for a wage theft law that would hold the general contractor or construction manager liable for any money owed, and lobbied for prevailing wage standards and the codification of labor standards in green energy jobs – both for related construction and for permanent energy sector jobs.

4. Mario Cilento

President, New York State AFL-CIO

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New York’s workers have struggled throughout the coronavirus pandemic, but Mario Cilento and the state AFL-CIO have been delivering for their members. Since Cilento was unanimously reelected as leader of the 3,000-union federation last summer, he has gone on to successfully lobby the Legislature to pass the NY Hero Act, which sets standards for workplace safety as the pandemic stretches into its second year. He also lobbied to legalize recreational marijuana and to fund health care and education through higher taxes on the wealthy. 

5. Jessica Ramos

Chair, State Senate Committee on Labor

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This is what a supermajority looks like. Labor-related legislation in New York passes through the state Senate committee chaired by Jessica Ramos, and this year the second-term lawmaker from Queens introduced yet another headline-grabbing bill. The legislation ultimately passed in the annual budget as a $2.1 billion unemployment fund for so-called excluded workers, typically undocumented workers in front-line positions who have been hard-hit by the pandemic. Also, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill in February that Ramos sponsored that created a statewide registry of construction-related deaths.

6. Randi Weingarten

President, American Federation of Teachers

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Reopening schools has been one of the most contested issues of the COVID-19 era, and few have been happy with the pace – parent, teacher or student. One person who thought New York City has tackled it correctly is Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. Unlike some national labor figures, Weingarten remains influential among local education unions in New York, where she headed the United Federation of Teachers from 1998 to 2009.

7. John Samuelsen

International President, Transport Workers Union

As international president of the Transport Workers Union, John Samuelsen represents 150,000 transit workers, including 41,000 at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, his former employer whose tracks stretch from New York City to Poughkeepsie and Montauk. After a $3.9 billion bailout in March 2020, the MTA is receiving another $6 billion in aid via the American Rescue Plan, sidestepping once again the looming jobs catastrophe caused by the pandemic’s obliteration of transit revenue.

8. Mark Cannizzaro

President, New York State Federation of School Administrators

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Mark Cannizzaro has played a highly visible role in the debate over how public schools have responded to the coronavirus pandemic, joining other labor leaders in questioning the safety of reopening plans. A Staten Island native and educator, Cannizzaro is best known as the leader of the New York City-based Council of School Supervisors & Administrators, but he also has broader roles as the president of the New York State Federation of School Administrators and a vice president of the American Federation of School Administrators. 

9. Stuart Appelbaum

President, Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union

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All eyes were on the RWDSU’s campaign at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, and the workers’ clear rejection of the union will have untold consequences for the labor movement around the U.S. Stuart Appelbaum, the union’s president and one of the most prominent labor leaders both statewide and nationally, was defiant after the defeat, describing Amazon’s “outrageous” moves to intimidate workers. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Appelbaum has been a voice for retail workers, who are sometimes drawn into violent confrontations over mask-wearing in their stores.

10. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer

Majority Leader, U.S. Senate

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With no margin for error, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s caucus of 50 Democratic senators was able to pass the American Rescue Plan Act, which will pump $1.9 trillion into the COVID-19-ravaged U.S. economy. Through payouts to state and local governments, the bill will keep an untold number of New York employees on public payrolls. The ARP also includes $86 billion to bail out about 185 troubled “multiemployer” union pension plans that cover about 625,000 New Yorkers, the second-most of any state.

11. Letitia James

State Attorney General

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Under the leadership of Letitia James, the state attorney general’s office has undertaken ambitious investigations and lawsuits against heavy hitters – often on behalf of labor. In September, James beat Trump’s labor department in federal court over a proposed rule that would have made it harder to hold multiple employers jointly liable for wage theft. James, until last year a lecturer at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, also sued Amazon in February, claiming the retail behemoth unlawfully fired and disciplined workers who complained about unsafe coronavirus-related working conditions in Queens and Staten Island centers.

12. Dennis Trainor

Vice President, CWA District 1

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Communications Workers of America District 1 represents about 145,000 members in the Northeast in such industries as telecommunications, newspaper printing and manufacturing – and in January over 200 Google workers joined the union. Vice President Dennis Trainor began his career as a splicer’s helper for the New York Telephone Company in 1969, and today pushes progressive legislation in Albany. This year, he celebrated state budget wins such as higher taxes on the wealthy and a program to map residents’ access to broadband.

13. Roberta Reardon

Commissioner, State Department of Labor

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Roberta Reardon’s state labor department unfortunately became an intimately familiar agency for a record number of New Yorkers during the coronavirus pandemic as they navigated an outdated and overwhelmed system to secure unemployment benefits. The former labor leader caught flak in February after accepting the recommendation of the state Farm Laborers Wage Board that farmworkers should continue to receive overtime pay only after working 60 hours in a week.

14. Thomas DiNapoli

State Comptroller

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In March, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli cautioned local governments not to be fiscally short-sighted following an infusion of federal aid and better-than-expected tax receipts.

Comptroller since 2007, DiNapoli announced in December that the state’s $226 billion retirement fund would divest from fossil fuel companies over the next decade. “New York state’s pension fund is at the leading edge of investors addressing climate risk, because investing for the low-carbon future is essential to protect the fund’s long-term value,” he stated at the time.

15. Wayne Spence

President, New York State Public Employees Federation

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As president of the Public Employees Federation, one of the state’s largest public employee unions, with almost 52,000 members, Wayne Spence in November objected to some of his members being brought back into government offices due to the risk of COVID-19 infection. According to Spence, nonessential workers who were recalled to their offices at the state Department of Labor and other agencies weren’t tasked with anything they couldn’t have done at home.

16. Mary Sullivan

President, Civil Service Employees Association

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February’s $1.9 trillion federal relief bill pumped over $23 billion into New York and its local governments, which undoubtedly protected an untold number of jobs of Civil Service Employees Association members. Meanwhile, as the union’s president since 2019, Mary Sullivan has fought to keep her members who work for SUNY safe from COVID-19. In November, SUNY agreed with CSEA to extend into June its program of mandatory regular tests. “We appreciate collaborating with SUNY administration to protect our campus communities,” Sullivan said at the time.

17. Peter Abbate Jr.

Chair, Assembly Committee on Governmental Employees

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Assembly Member Peter Abbate Jr. chairs the lower body’s Committee on Governmental Employees, which oversees legislation that touches public pensions and civil service. The 18-term lawmaker from South Brooklyn co-sponsored legislation in November aimed at preventing the state and local governments from punishing workers for coronavirus-related absences. “You’re sick with COVID and you’re ‘chronically absent’? It makes no sense to me,” Abbate told the Daily News after almost 900 COVID-19-positive New York City correction officers had to appeal the adverse designation in their attendance records.

18. Andrew Gounardes 

Chair, State Senate Committee on Civil Service and Pensions

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In 2018, Andrew Gounardes narrowly defeated then-state Sen. Marty Golden, one of the few remaining Republican lawmakers in New York City. After taking over Golden’s Committee on Civil Service and Pensions, Gounardes oversaw legislation dealing with public sector workers and retirees during his first term – and went on to win reelection last year with significant support from organized labor. This year he has backed legislation to improve workplace safety and passed a measure creating a COVID-19 death benefit for public employees. 

19. Latoya Joyner

Chair, Assembly Labor Committee

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When the up-and-coming power broker Marcos Crespo left the Assembly, he handed the reins of the Assembly Labor Committee to a fellow Bronxite, Assembly Member Latoya Joyner. Since she assumed the coveted role early this year, Joyner has sought to eliminate repayments for families who received unemployment or coronavirus relief payments they weren’t eligible for absent any fraud. She also helped pass the NY HERO Act, a COVID-19 worker protection measure.

20. Armand Sabitoni

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General Secretary-Treasurer and New England Regional Manager, Laborers’ International Union of North America

For 20 years, Armand Sabitoni has been general secretary-treasurer in the national Laborers’ union. In his role as a regional manager of LIUNA, Sabitoni represents 60,000 laborers across New England and most of New York state. Last year, Sabitoni touted as a jobs creator the controversial Champlain-Hudson Power Express line, which is planned to deliver up to 1,250 megawatts of hydroelectric power from Canada via the Hudson River.

21. Christopher Erikson

Business Manager, Local Union 3 IBEW

An outspoken leader who issues full-throated defenses of progressive priorities such as green energy, Christopher Erikson has been paying union dues since he was an apprentice electrician in 1975. His local of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which covers New York City, parts of Connecticut, New Jersey and Westchester and Putnam counties, recently went to bat for the Empire City Casino in Yonkers to adopt table gaming and sports betting as a means of creating union jobs.

22. Rich Maroko

President, Hotel Trades Council

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Serving travelers during a pandemic has been hazardous for the hotel workers who avoided the coronavirus-related layoffs that decimated the sector: About 400 Hotel Trades Council members died of the virus as thousands more got sick. Representing about 40,000 hotel and gaming workers in New York and New Jersey, HTC President Rich Maroko fought to get his members near the front of the line for the COVID-19 vaccine.

23. Michael Gianaris & Karines Reyes

State Senate Deputy Majority Leader; Assembly Member

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As the coronavirus pandemic raged and workplaces opened back up across New York, state Sen. Michael Gianaris of Queens and Assembly Member Karines Reyes of the Bronx introduced a bill that would have the Department of Labor set health and safety standards intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus – with enforcement mechanisms. Backed by a number of unions, the so-called NY HERO Act passed both houses and was signed by the governor. While Gianaris is a veteran lawmaker and one of the most influential politicians in Albany, Karines Reyes won her Assembly seat in 2018, after serving as a nurse at the Montefiore Einstein Center for Cancer Care. She was an advocate for working New Yorkers as a member of the politically active New York State Nurses Association. 

24. M. Patricia Smith

Senior Counselor to the Secretary of Labor, U.S. Department of Labor

It’s hard to find a labor law resume as deep as M. Patricia Smith’s. A former commissioner of the New York State Department of Labor, Smith also spent eight years as the labor bureau chief for the state attorney general’s office, worked as solicitor for the Obama-era labor department, and was senior counsel for the National Employment Law Project. More recently, she advised President Joe Biden during his transition and has since worked as senior counselor to new Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.

25. John Durso

President, Long Island Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO

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As the head of the 250,000-member Long Island Federation of Labor, John Durso made the case for recreational marijuana legalization as a labor priority. "A legal cannabis industry would create tens of thousands of jobs across the state, yielding billions of dollars in income for its workforce,” he told Spectrum News, before the legislation finally crossed the finish line. Durso also heads Local 338 RWDSU/UFCW, which represents grocery, pharmacy, health care and other workers.

26. Fred Kowal

President, United University Professions

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Representing 42,000 members working at State University of New York institutions, Fred Kowal has been advocating for full funding for SUNY during what was expected to be a punishing budget crunch. In his proposed budget – released before the federal government filled shortfalls and lawmakers secured a tax hike on the wealthy – Gov. Andrew Cuomo had put forth a 5% state aid cut to the SUNY system, even as United University Professions members battled deadly COVID-19 cases at its teaching hospitals.

27. Pat Kane & Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez

Executive Director; President, New York State Nurses Association

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COVID-19 claimed the lives of at least 38 of the 40,000-plus members of the state’s largest nurses’ union, helmed by Pat Kane (above) and Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, both veteran nurses. NYSNA, which held a strike in December at Montefiore New Rochelle over staffing levels, has for years been pushing a safe staffing bill. If passed, the bill is expected to cost hospitals billions in new hires – a move that Kane argued would have saved lives in hospitals and nursing homes during the pandemic.

28. Thomas Gesualdi

President, Teamsters Joint Council 16

Thomas Gesualdi steps into big shoes as he replaces George Miranda, the longtime president of the coordinating Teamsters body for downstate New York. Gesualdi spent over a decade as president of Teamsters Local 282 in Lake Success before becoming the chief of Joint Council 16, which represents about 120,000 members in 27 locals. Other influential labor leaders on the council include the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association’s Harry Nespoli and Local 237’s Gregory Floyd. 

29. Thomas Carey

President, Westchester-Putnam Central Labor Body

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Thomas Carey helps to shape public policy to serve the interests of 150,000 members in his role as president of the Westchester-Putnam Central Labor Body. Earlier this year, he advocated for workforce protections for those affected by the closing of the Indian Point Energy Center nuclear plant. During last summer’s Democratic National Convention, Carey pushed for Congress to create a $4 trillion national infrastructure bank, calling it “the biggest job creator we have seen in a long, long time.”

30. Sparrow Tobin

President, Hudson Valley Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO

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A social studies teacher and an alderman of Middletown, Sparrow Tobin also heads the Hudson Valley Area Labor Federation, a body that represents 113,000 workers in seven counties, from Rockland County up to Columbia and Greene counties. Tobin told the Mid Hudson News in 2019 that in leading the federation, his goal is “attracting good union jobs to the Hudson Valley that have benefits and that people can make careers out of.”

31. Ann Marie Taliercio

President, Central New York Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO

Leading an area federation that represents over 100,000 members of 200 AFL-CIO locals, Ann Marie Taliercio is also president of Unite Here Local 150 in Syracuse. Taliercio has said the Central New York Area Labor Federation that she heads is looking to represent workers who build and who staff what’s expected to become Amazon’s biggest fulfillment center, a nearly 4 million-square-foot facility planned for the Syracuse suburb of Clay.

32. Mike Blue

President, Capital District Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO

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Last May, Gov. Andrew Cuomo named Mike Blue to a group spearheading the Capital Region's pandemic reopening, the only labor leader among the 12 members. He heads the Capital District Area Labor Federation, which combines 40 local unions and about 100,000 members. In addition to his role as president of the regional AFL-CIO federation, Blue is also the coordinator for the Public Employees Federation’s Region 8, which includes Albany.

33. Peter DeJesus

President, Western New York Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO

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Peter DeJesus, political action coordinator for 1199SEIU, was elected in March to a three-year term as president of the Western New York Area Labor Federation. The first Hispanic leader of the consortium, DeJesus succeeds the retiring Richard Lipsitz, a vocal longtime labor leader in Western New York who served for 10 years as the federation’s president. The regional federation brings together five local AFL-CIO councils and over 100,000 rank-and-file members.

34. Michael O’Meara

President, New York State Association of PBAs

With police departments under heightened scrutiny, the New York State Association of PBAs is defending the police officers it represents while working on their behalf with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Michael O’Meara, who leads the umbrella labor group, recently applauded the state Senate Democratic conference for passing bills protecting its members from COVID-19. The association represents 45,000 law enforcement officers across the state, including those with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

35. Philip Rumore 

President, Buffalo Teachers Federation

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Known as a hard-nosed negotiator and dogged advocate for his union’s teachers, Philip Rumore has headed the Buffalo Teachers Federation for 40 years. One of his most recent advocacy efforts was a lawsuit that would have blocked students’ physical return to Buffalo classrooms. Though unsuccessful on that front, Rumore has also spoken out against the federal government’s standardized testing requirement for grades 3-8 during the coronavirus pandemic.

36. D. Taylor

International President, Unite Here

Few unions have suffered as much during the COVID-19 pandemic as the 300,000-member Unite Here, which represents hotel, airport, food service and casino workers. President of the union since 2012, D. Taylor in February pushed for heavy COBRA subsidies to be included in the American Rescue Plan Act, which delivered for workers who had recently lost their health insurance along with their jobs. While Taylor resides in Seattle, the union has its headquarters in New York.

37. Ai-jen Poo

Executive Director, National Domestic Workers Alliance

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Well known in New York for her work to extend labor protections to vulnerable domestic workers, Ai-jen Poo was involved in the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote push and behind-the-scenes voter protection efforts around the 2020 election – campaigns that were essential to President Joe Biden’s eventual victory. In her attempts to secure federal dollars for cleaners, nannies and home care attendants in an upcoming infrastructure bill, Poo told Mother Jones that the nation’s caregiving industry is “as essential as roads, bridges, and broadband.”

38. Richard Wells

President, Police Conference of New York

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Richard Wells spent over 34 years with the Hempstead Police and, since retiring in 2007, has served as president of the 25,000-member Police Conference of New York, which comprises 229 benevolent associations and eight regional conferences. Wells railed last summer against the repeal of the state’s 50-a law that had kept secret the disciplinary records of first responders. In March, he opposed Ithaca’s proposal to dissolve its police force and rehire armed and unarmed officers.

39. Sam Fresina

President, New York State Professional Fire Fighters Association

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The head of a union that represents 18,000 firefighters across the state, Sam Fresina made a case this year for why firefighters and EMTs should get top vaccine priority alongside front-line health care workers. Patients are “in our care from the call to when we hand them off to ER doctors," he told WICZ-TV. A former Albany firefighter, Fresina also serves on state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli's advisory council for the New York’s Common Retirement Fund, the country’s third largest public pension plan.

40. Michael Powers

President, New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association

As head of the union that represents the state’s corrections officers, Michael Powers has advocated for a workforce that threatens to dwindle as the state’s incarcerated population shrinks and prisons are shuttered. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced late last year that he was closing three prisons, which would displace several hundred NYSCOPBA members and their families. Powers argued that the move is misguided due to the impact on local communities and given high prison violence.

41. Rafael Espinal

Executive Director, Freelancers Union

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In the first round of federal stimulus following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, Rafael Espinal and the 500,000-member Freelancers Union helped secure $600-a-week unemployment payments for freelancers who were out of work. After the March 2021 stimulus bill exempted up to $10,200 in those unemployment benefits from federal taxation, the former New York City Council member argued, alongside state Sen. Jessica Ramos, that New York should follow suit.

42. Jeff Binz

Regional Director, UAW Region 9

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After serving in various United Auto Workers leadership roles for over 20 years, Jeff Binz in 2018 was elected director of Region 9, which covers Western and Central New York, New Jersey and most of Pennsylvania. His New York membership includes over 1,000 maintenance and service workers at Cornell University as well as autoworkers at General Motors’ Tonawanda plant. Acceding to UAW demands that accompanied a 40-day strike in fall 2019, GM converted 31 temp workers to full-timers with benefits as it upgraded the plant last year.

43. Beverley Brakeman 

Regional Director, UAW Region 9A

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As allegations of sexual harassment proliferated against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Beverley Brakeman went further than many labor leaders in the state by calling on the governor to step aside while state Attorney General Letitia James investigates the claims. “Should the allegations be proven true, he should step down – no questions asked,” stated Brakeman, whose United Auto Workers region covers the Hudson Valley and the Capital Region, as well the New York City metro area and New England.

44. Patrick Purcell Jr.

Executive Director, Greater New York LECET

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Patrick Purcell Jr. is the head of a partnership between Laborers’ locals statewide and their contracted employers, an organization founded under the theory that if the union construction sector thrives, management wins too. This year the Greater New York Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust celebrated in April as some big priorities made it into the annual state budget. Key among them were increased funding for infrastructure projects throughout the state and the expansion of prevailing wage requirements for certain renewable energy construction projects.

45. Louis Picani

President, Teamsters Local 456

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Louis Picani, who was a Yonkers sanitation worker for almost 20 years, has since 2016 overseen over 6,500 workers as president of Teamsters Local 456. The local includes many public sector employees and some building trades workers in Westchester and Putnam counties. In March, Mount Vernon municipal workers with Local 456 sued the city to get the overtime pay they said had been denied them since December.

46. Daniel Levler

President, Suffolk AME

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In March, Daniel Levler won a third term as president of the Suffolk County Association of Municipal Employees, the union that represents 6,000 county government workers, after a tough three-person race, touting the long-term contract with raises that the county signed in 2019. He also showcased the fact that members kept their jobs throughout the coronavirus pandemic, though Suffolk was expected to make $75 million in cuts before federal stimulus dollars filled the gap.

47. James Mahoney

President, New York State District Council of Iron Workers

James Mahoney is the president of the New York State District Council of Iron Workers, the general vice president of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers, and a member of the state AFL-CIO’s executive council. Mahoney has been a vocal supporter of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “Buy American” push, saying in 2019 that the state legislation “has helped create and preserve union jobs across the state and the nation.”

48. Terrence Melvin

Secretary-Treasurer, New York State AFL-CIO

As the secretary-treasurer of the New York State AFL-CIO, Terrence Melvin is the right-hand man to Mario Cilento, the president of the influential statewide labor union coalition. Melvin, who rose through the ranks of the public sector Civil Service Employees Association in western New York, has held his current post since 2007. Melvin is also an ordained Baptist minister and a civil rights leader, speaking out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

49. John Wirenius

Chair, New York State Public Employment Relations Board

For the past five years, John Wirenius has chaired the Public Employment Relations Board, the state government body that applies and enforces the Taylor Law, which ensures public sector workers in New York have a right to union representation and collective bargaining. The board resolves disputes for government employees, who are allowed to collectively bargain but who are forbidden to strike. Wirenius is not just a labor law expert but a deacon, a fencer and a novelist.

50. Karen Cacace

Labor Bureau Chief, New York Attorney General's Office

Testifying in a state legislative hearing last August, Karen Cacace excoriated the Trump-era Occupational Safety and Health Administration for what she described as a lack of safety guidelines for workplaces as they reopened during the pandemic. She encouraged state lawmakers to “fill the void that the federal government has left” and vowed her office would enforce coronavirus-related workplace-safety laws. On that note she is also supervising state Attorney General Letitia James’ lawsuit over Amazon’s working conditions during the pandemic.

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