October 4, 2016
By Silver Krieger
New York, NY – On Thursday, September 29th, the Heroes of Labor Awards were presented by EmblemHealth and LaborPress, at a ceremony marked by the gratitude and humility of those honored at the ceremony. Although marked by instances of heroism and dedication, the majority of those who received the award stated that they were just doing their job, doing what they loved.
Neal Tepel of LaborPress opened the ceremony, noting that LaborPress and EmblemHealth have partnered for five years in the presentation of the awards. “EmblemHealth provides tremendous health programs to many New Yorkers, and we are grateful for their support,” he said. Thomas C. Mafale, Vice President of Sales of EmblemHealth, followed, striking a somber note by thanking those who were involved in responding to the New Jersey transit disaster in Hoboken, and noting that one of their own employees, who thankfully survived, had been in the first car of the train, and, in his own moment of heroism, kicked out a window to help people escape. He offered congratulations to all. Karen Ignagni, President and CEO of EmblemHealth, spoke next, asking for a moment of silence for Battalion Chief Michael Fahy, who was killed Tuesday responding to a fire in the Bronx. Then she turned her attention to the honorees, praising “the rank and file union members doing extraordinary work.”
First to receive his lovely glass award was Allen Wright, of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 14-14B. Edwin Christian, President and Business Manager, introduced Wright, saying, “The labor movement is under attack, but we have really unbelievable people.” Wright, Director of Industry Advancement at the union, was nominated for his extensive work in community outreach, especially with local youth. He said that years ago, his uncle taught him a lesson he never forgot, by showing him a jar with change, and asking him what would happen if he just took out money and never put anything back. He realized there would be nothing left, and so, “I look at the union membership the same way. I’ve always tried to give back.”
Next, Harry Nespoli, President of the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association Local 831, spoke of two nominees from the union, Carlos Rosado and Wilson Arroyo. He said the Sanitationmen’s motto was, “If you see something, do something,” and told the story of how the two alerted police and helped get four young children that had been left alone in a car that was running and parked on the street. “Then they went back to work,” said Nespoli. Although Rosado was not able to attend, Arroyo was present, and said, “That day I will never forget. I did what anyone else would do.” He thanked Nespoli, the union, EmblemHealth, and LaborPress.
Artie Rodriguez, a foreman with Ironworkers Local 580, received his award next, which was presented by Peter Myers, Business Manager. About a year ago, on his way to work, Rodriguez ran into a burning building near his home, and, while others stood by taking photos on their cell phones, managed to get out the occupants, including an elderly grandmother, saving their lives. “I just did the right thing,” he said, modestly. He thanked Myers, EmblemHealth, LaborPress, and his wife and sons.
Lieutenant Brian J. Colleluori, of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association (UFOA) Local 854, was the next honoree. He, and presenter James Lemonda. President and Chief’s Representative, were unable to be present, as they were with the family of fallen firefighter Battalion Chief Michael Fahy. Christine O’Connor, Senior Director, Labor and Government Accounts at EmblemHealth, accepted the award for him. Colleluori was honored for his heroism at a fire in East Flatbush in 2015, where he went into a very dangerous situation by entering a house with heavy smoke, and crawled to rescue an unconscious man. He also attempted to save the life of a woman by using his body to shield her from the fire until other help arrived. Tragically, she succumbed, but the man survived. O’Connor read a statement from Colleluori, saying, “I was just doing what I always wanted to do. It was my honor and privilege.”
Usher Piller, Division Leader/Steward of the Public Employees Union (PEF), followed, receiving the award for many years of leadership within the union. Wayne Spence, President of PEF, introduced him, praising his advocacy for the members. Piller uses a range of tactics to fight for members, whether they are being disciplined or interrogated, filing grievances, and if appropriate, doing an Improper Practice Charge at the Public Employment Relations Board, among many other strategies. Spence noted that Pillar has also effectively utilized public relations through media, getting stories in the local papers, to get attention to the problem when necessary, as well as reaching out to politicians. “If Wikipedia had an entry for ‘Truth to Power,’” said Spence, “Usher’s picture would be there.” Said Piller, “We make bullies sorry they started up.”
Three honorees from the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 94, Ronald Cerna, Joseph Modica, and Timothy C. Mahoney, were then introduced by Jack Redden, Business Agent. Cerna and Modica were both cited for their outstanding work in representing workers by testifying in the prevailing wage bill fight, where independent contractors working in Board of Education buildings were paid more than Custodians doing the same work. Cerna and Modica both testified before the City Council Education Committee, Modica rallied union members for votes, and Cerna talked to individual council members as well. The union won the raises in 2016. Modica thanked “all who inspired us to go out and fight for what we deserved,” while Cerna said,”I owe more to my union than they owe me. They’ve given me everything. I give the honor, and thanks, to the people who put me here.” Timothy Mahoney was honored for his work with MAP, the Members Assistance Program, which helps members with substance abuse problems. Mahoney, who noted he was thirty years sober as of the day of the awards, although retired, still leads monthly meetings and monitors a hotline for those who need assistance. He thanked all those in the program who are available to assist those in need throughout the boroughs, who remain anonymous. Jack Redden called Mahoney, “the light at the end of the tunnel.”
The final honoree was Donald Nesbit, Executive Vice President of Local 372, AFSCME. Nesbit was honored for his mentoring of youth, specifically for working on building bridges between youth and the law, his efforts to equalize pay for women, as well as his advocacy for union members that have been discriminated against. He sits on the Next Wave Advisory Board of the International ASCME, where he strategies on how to prepare the “next wave” of leadership. Shaun Francois I, President of the Local 372, used Nesbit’s name to describe him: “D for determination, O for Optimistic, N for Never Quits, A for Ambitious, L for Leadership, D for deliverance.”
Neal Tepel of LaborPress wrapped up the awards, and noted that Senator Kirsten Gillibrand had sent her regards. “We are appreciative of all who are joining us this evening,” he said.