New York, NY — On Tuesday, November 1, LaborPress and EmblemHealth presented the 10th Annual Heroes of Labor Awards at the EmblemHealth Headquarters in Lower Manhattan. LaborPress is the largest labor news network in New York, reporting daily on stories affecting working New Yorkers. LaborPress articles are viewed by thousands online, through E-News, in print and on video. EmblemHealth is one of the nation’s largest nonprofit health insurers, with an 80-year legacy of serving New York communities. It is dedicated to caring for labor union members, working people, government employees, and municipal workers.
At the event, hundreds of union members, labor leaders, and elected officials filled the hall to show their support for the four honorees. Elected officials included Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, Deputy Borough President Ebony Young, Senator Brian Kavanagh, Councilmember Crystal Hudson, Senator Robert Jackson, Assemblymember Deborah Glick, and Assemblywoman Monique Chandler-Waterman. The four honorees were Harry Nespoli, President, Teamsters Local 831, Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, Henry Garrido, Executive Director, District Council 37, Tony Utano, President, TWU Local 100, and Laura Carbonell-Monarque, Producing Artistic Director, Working Theater.
Neal Tepel, Publisher of LaborPress, opened the ceremony by welcoming the audience and handing off the mic to Christine O’Connor of EmblemHealth, who echoed the welcome and who said what a pleasure it was to see so many friends after everything that the city, the state, the country and the world had endured, referring to the pandemic. “We’re here to celebrate the men and women who really came forward and didn’t skip a beat and didn’t stop and kept our city running through unprecedented times, scary times,” she said. She also praised the leadership of Karen Ignagni, CEO of EmblemHealth, during the difficult times, who spoke next.
“This is important, the celebration tonight,” said Ignagni, “because it reminds us all, that we got to the other side. It didn’t just happen. The men and women in this room helped make that possible. Our four honorees, their peers, their members, they made it possible for our city to look at the worst of the pandemic in the rear view mirror…that’s what union members do, and have always done. They make it possible for our city to keep going. That’s what we witnessed during COVID, and that’s what we honor here tonight.” She also asked for a moment of silence for those lost to the pandemic. She then introduced Tepel, who she called “a beacon” of light during the pandemic and added, “when we talk about soul, and we talk about heart, I can’t think of anyone who has more of both of those things.”
Tepel followed, saying, “This evening we honor the entire municipal workforce, the engine and the heart of this great city. And we honor the professionals of our spectacular entertainment community, a unionized billion dollar industry that employs hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers.”
After an introduction by Ignagni, who read a long list of his accomplishments and positions, Garrido came up to speak and accept his award. He thanked Ignagni and Tepel, saying, “It’s really important to have partners that recognize the value of the working men and women of this city and the people whose lives are really the ones that we’re here to celebrate tonight. And so I accept this award with great humility on behalf of the 150,000 members of District Council 37 and the 100,000 or so retirees that we represent.” He also talked about workers who had gotten COVID just for going to work and doing their job and, “for keeping us safe, for keeping us fed, for keeping a hospital going.” He added that although during times of great crisis these workers are called “heroes,” during times of economic downfall they are asked to pay a price, and he specifically referred to paying premiums on health insurance. “It’s not enough to call us heroes, you have to show that at the bargaining table, you have to show that respect every single day, by talking to us as if we’re human beings, and not a number.”
Robert Bishop accepted the award for the next honoree, Harry Nespoli. He spoke about storied leaders in the union movement, starting in the 1970’s, who provided a foundation of leaders to come, Nespoli being one. He detailed Nespoli’s career and rise in the ranks, a highlight of which was his election as president in 2003 of Local 831, as well as his numerous other impressive positions. “Harry’s driven by a mission to serve the people of the city of New York, and to better the lives of the people that 831 represents…it’s a fight for dignity and respect, and Harry’s vision and leadership were clearly on display in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Chris Erickson, a Board Member of the Working Theater, introduced Carbonell-Monarque. He began by giving a history of the Theater, founded in 1985, on the belief that the experience of live theater should not be a privilege, or a luxury, but a staple. Its mission is to produce theater for, with, by and about working people. “Our work remains relevant, accessible, and affordable to all,” he said. He spoke about Carbonell-Monarque’s beginnings as an intern at the Theater, and her rise at the organization and accomplishments. She accepted the award, saying thank you to EmblemHealth and LaborPress for “recognizing the importance of the arts.” During the pandemic, she said, those at the Theater came to the conclusion that “we exist because of our community, our community of audiences and artists as well who believe as we do that theater should be accessible and affordable and reflective of all people and that the stories of working people belong on the professional stage.” One of the things they did was to highlight the stories of essential workers on a social media series in the spring of 2020, she said. This was followed by a national co-production with eight organizations in September 2020, employing many workers on full union contracts who would otherwise not have been working. These are just two of the projects done during the pandemic, among many new ones. In-person productions have been reintroduced.
TWU Local 100 Secretary-Treasurer Richard Davis introduced Utano, saying, “Tony is a very modest person, he doesn’t like a lot of recognition, he does a lot of hard work and this room is full of Local 100 members who support Tony… I want to speak from my heart because of how dedicated he was during COVID. He has 42 years on the job, 40 years as a union rep, three terms as president, his accomplishments – we’d be here all day.” Davis spoke about how hard the members worked during COVID, and the fight for PPE. He said about Utano, “what he has done for his members is beyond belief.” One of the things, he said, was how during COVID Utano negotiated a $500,000 life insurance benefit for those who passed away. “His compassion, his brilliant leadership, for me he’s a role model…his integrity as a leader, like none I’ve ever seen…”
Utano followed the introduction, and said, “This award is very special. Transit workers don’t get recognized often for what they do. And we did a lot…When Superstorm Sandy hit who was out staying in their quarters for the whole week, 24 hours, to make sure we got that subway back so people can transport? Transit workers. When the train centers went down, 3,000 transit workers responded to see if they could save lives, to clear the way, to hook up generators, to hook up pumps. We did that…” He then added how the workers were recognized as heroes, but then forgotten. He spoke about how difficult it was to get PPE, and how during 9/11, when members responded and were working without masks, they were told the air was good, with the result that even today many are now dying. During COVID, the union had to stand up to management about finger scans, which could transmit germs. “That was just the beginning of the fight,” said Utano. The scans were discarded, and then the previously banned masks were then allowed. Other changes to protect members were instituted as well. Utano also mentioned the death benefit, pensions, three years of medical for family members that were won as well. “We had to go to work, we had to run the subway,” he said. “Today we’re getting recognized, and I hope and pray that we’re never forgotten,” he added. “They talk about deficits, they talk about budget cuts…what happened to the “heroes”? We’re not heroes anymore? Now you want to cut our jobs, you want to lay us off?…That just ain’t right…We’re gonna fight them…and we’re gonna remind them what we’ve done.”
Tepel closed by thanking the honorees, and the audience for attending.