October 28, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
New York, NY – More than 150 people turned out Oct. 25 to remember former New York State AFL-CIO president Edward J. Cleary, who died July 13 at the age of 86.
In a memorial at the United Federation of Teachers’ Manhattan headquarters, a half-dozen of Cleary’s former colleagues from the AFL-CIO and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3, along with his granddaughter and a childhood friend, praised him as a visionary and committed leader, an honest and loyal family man who nurtured a future generation of labor leaders.
“He loved power—but he made sure that every ounce of that power was used to help working men and women, not himself,” said Ann Marie Taliercio, president of UNITE HERE Local 150 in Syracuse. “He was not afraid of other people dancing in the spotlight.”
“If he was right, he was going to take the good fight,” said Denis Hughes, who succeeded Cleary as head of the state federation in 1999. “He was both the kindest guy I ever met and the toughest guy I ever met.”
Cleary grew up in Brooklyn, the son of one of the “Committee of 100” who built the IBEW into one of the city’s strongest unions in the 1930s, said Local 3 President Chris Erikson. He joined the union as an apprentice when he was 18, and received his journeyman’s “A” card in 1955. He was elected Local 3 president in 1964, and served for 20 years before he was tapped to lead the state AFL-CIO in January 1984.
In his inaugural address there, he echoed John F. Kennedy and outlined a vision of “one movement, one voice, one agenda.”
As New York AFL-CIO president, Cleary led its transformation from a “sleeping giant” to the most effective state federation in the country, said former secretary-treasurer Paul Cole. “He knew how to mobilize people behind a vision and get results.”
He expanded the state federation’s staff more than fourfold, extending its work from legislative and political goals to establish a statewide network of community-service programs that included job retraining, alcohol and drug-abuse treatment, education, and help for workers at closed plants. He also moved the federation into a permanent headquarters in Albany, across from the state capitol. It was named the Edward J. Cleary Building after he retired in 1999. He battled against the privatization of public services and helped win improvements in workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, and the minimum wage, as well as a state “toxic tort” law that requires compensation for workers who had been exposed to hazardous substances. He also revived the New York City Labor Day parade in 1995, after it had been cancelled.
Former staffers remembered him as someone who groomed them to develop into the labor movement’s future leaders, who insisted that they all eat meals together when they traveled to conferences, who always gave them credit for what they did. Among those staffers was a 23-year-old from Queens named Mario Cilento, who was hired as an in-house publicist in 1992.
“Ed grew up in a generation of labor leaders who did not like talking to the press,” recalled Cilento, who became the federation’s state president in 2011. But he understood that labor needed to communicate with the public and win its support, Cilento added. “He taught me everything I need to know.”
Edward J. Cleary was passionate and courageous, “everything you would want a great labor leader to be,” Cilento said at the end of the program. “A truly great leader is someone who inspires you to fight harder for your brothers and sisters than you would for yourself. That was Ed.”
Local 3’s Sword of Light bagpipe-and-drum band then played “Amazing Grace.”