May 4, 2017
By Steven Wishnia
Washington, DC – John Samuelsen, head of New York City’s transit workers’ union for seven years, has been tapped to become international president of the Transport Workers Union of America.
The TWU International Executive Council voted unanimously May 2 to choose Samuelsen after incumbent President Harry Lombardo “unexpectedly announced his retirement, effective immediately,” the union said in a statement.
Samuelsen, 49, has been president of Local 100, the TWU’s largest, since 2009, and has been the international TWU’s executive vice president since 2013. He is the union’s youngest head since founder Michael J. Quill in 1937.
He said in a statement that the leadership’s immediate priority would be negotiating the union’s national contracts, especially those at American Airlines, which cover more than 25,000 members. He will stay on as Local 100 president for the near future, the union said, to see through the implementation of the contract negotiated in January for its 37,000 members who work in New York’s transit system. At the time, he called the deal “a concession-free contract, a major accomplishment in this age of public-sector bargaining.”
Born in Brooklyn, Samuelsen joined the TWU in 1993 after getting a job as a track worker. Local 100 credits him with having expanded its membership by nearly 5,000, to 42,000 active members, by “developing a top-notch organizing department”; restoring the union to financial stability and moving it to a permanent headquarters in downtown Brooklyn; winning paid parental leave and lifetime health care for members’ spouses; and stabilizing its school-bus division.
Local 100 contains about one-fourth of the TWU’s 150,000 active members. The union also represents transit workers in Philadelphia, Houston, and San Francisco. Its rail division includes workers at Conrail, Amtrak, and New Jersey Transit. Its air division boasts members from “nearly every class and craft in the aviation industry,” among them workers at American and Southwest airlines, several military bases, and the NASA Kennedy Space Center. Its gaming division represents dealers at major casinos in Las Vegas.
Lombardo, who had been president since 2013, came from Philadelphia’s Local 234. A former car cleaner for the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, he became the union’s youngest business agent ever in 1979.
The TWU described Samuelsen’s philosophy of leadership as “aggressively” taking on management to win the best contracts possible, developing a strategic plan to organize new workers “across all of our industrial sectors,” and helping locals develop strategic campaigns to advance the union. Externally, it involves using the union’s resources to fight “governmental fiscal austerity in public transit,” and challenging the Democratic Party “to once again become the party that wholeheartedly represents the interests of the trade-union movement and blue-collar America.”
Local 100 was one of the largest unions to endorse Bernie Sanders in last year’s Democratic presidential primaries, with Samuelsen telling a rally at its headquarters in April 2016 that “there is no doubt that America needs a jolt.”