The Peggy Browning Fund held its 26th Anniversary Awards reception at the Midtown Hilton on April 26 to honor two influential New York City labor leaders and one longtime labor lawyer with its namesake achievement award.
The recipients included business manager of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 94 Kuba J. Brown, the president of the New York State Nurses Association Nancy Hagans and General Counsel to 1199SEIU Daniel Ratner.
The fund’s mission is to inspire and support law students to pursue careers advocating for workers’ rights. It was founded in 1997 by Joseph Lurie, the husband of the late Browning, who passed away in 1997 of breast cancer.
With the resurgent push to unionize large corporations like Amazon and Starbucks and the highest approval for unionism in 50 years, what the Peggy Browning Fund does is in high demand these days.
“More law students see labor law as a viable and appealing career path than perhaps any time in history,” said Rachel Del Rossi, the fund’s executive director.
In 2023, it gave 104 law students the opportunity to spend their summers working at unions, worker centers, labor agencies, union-side law firms and other nonprofit organizations.
Its recognition of Hagans followed her leadership on successful strikes at two hospitals in January — one of the largest strikes in the history of the union, which represents 42,000 registered nurses across the state.
Hagans is a nurse and critical care expert who rose in the ranks of the union until she was elected president in 2021. She was born in Haiti and grew up in New York City to start her career as a surgical intensive care in Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn in 1989.
According to Susan Davis, general counsel for NYSNA, Hagans had to start her career by advocating for herself against racist administrators. In her interview at Maimonides, Nancy was told that she could only interview for the night shift because at that time, the day shift was reserved for white nurses. In response, Hagans pored over the nursing contract and consulted with a cousin in law school before threatening legal action. The hospital responded by ousting the administrator, Davis said.
“Nancy caught the union fever, ran for the executive committee. She was a leader in the 1998 nurses strike,” said Davis. “She is seriously so highly respected by her fellow nurses, the doctors and the medical staff at the hospital.”
Hagans thanked the Browning fund for the work it does to advance workers rights and called for
solidarity from legal, political, community and other allies.
“My earlier years growing up in New York City taught me that the world and the workplace is not always just, you need to organize and speak out against injustice, “ Hagans said.
Staten Island labor power broker Vincent Pitta, managing partner of Pitta LLP, introduced Brown by describing him as a “died-in-the-wool trade unionist, who is highly respected by his peers, the members he represents, and also the industry employers who employ local 94’s members.”
Brown rose through the ranks of Local 94 through 52 years as a member. As business manager, he is responsible for the financial operation of the union’s 6,400 members who maintain and repair the heating and ventilation systems in residential and commercial buildings throughout the city.
“I’m no lawyer. I’m no college graduate. I barely made it out of high school, but I got a lot of street smarts. I learned from the streets and the streets took me where I’m at today,” said Brown.
Ratner, the third recipient, who began his career in labor as an organizer for 1199 and the United Auto Workers for 12 years, celebrated the bonds of solidarity that form from lawyers working with the rank-and-file over grievances or at the bargaining table.
“You have to constantly explain to the judges and the arbitrators, many of whom are here tonight, that the cases they have are about the struggle of working people,” he said.