When Union Leadership is Young
UWUA Local 1-2 in NYC has youthful leadership with a future looking bright
Throughout 2021, unions have flexed their muscle. From strikes to organizing drives at some of the largest companies in the world, organized labor has been making headlines left and right. Yet as people’s perception of unions continues to get better and more young people get involved in their unions, some of it's leadership has failed to adjust with the times.
As Baby Boomers begin to transition out of the workforce, organized labor has been forced to replenish their leadership ranks with younger leaders. One local union that has met this challenge head-on is UWUA Local 1-2 in New York City. This union, whose biggest employer is gas, power, and electric utility giant Con-Edison, has made a careful concerted effort over the last few years to train and recruit young members to take on leadership roles within the local union.
One of these younger leaders is Frank Dominguez, a Business Agent with Local 1-2. He is 36 now but started working at Con-Ed in Revenue Protection when he was just 19. By 20, he had become a union steward, putting him on the fast track towards moving up within the union ranks.
“When your young, people look at you two ways, either you are too young to do the job, or this is someone who actually cares,” said Dominguez. “Luckily for me, I had a lot of people who took to me and saw I was a young guy who took the position on and helped mold me into what I am today.”
Unlike more mature members whose kids are grown and out of the house, Dominguez has to juggle the late-night union calls with the challenges of having young children at home. “It’s not easy”, says Dominguez, “but leaders before me did it so I can too.” Frank Morales, a 37-year-old, said being young and in leadership is the best of both worlds. “I have the hustle and ambition of wanting to do and learn more, while I have the experienced people teach me and guide me on how it is done.”
At Local 1-2, their commitment to training the next generation is partially possible because they have seasoned leaders who are willing to work with the younger guys to train the next generation and pass down their skills and knowledge. Having young leaders also helped the membership of the same generation to feel like they have a relatable voice within the union. Many of the members cited how retired Senior Business Agent Vincent Kyne as an instrumental figure in teaching them the right way to do things and trusting them with progressively more responsibility over the years.
“Vincent Kyne was my Business Agent and he saw how much effort I always put into it,” Morales said. “He always taught me and guided me and got me into the shop steward classes and got me into doing extra events. I went from doing practically nothing with the union to doing everything. Him taking me under his wing and guiding and mentoring me turned me into what I am today.”
This type of organizational respect keeps this local strong, especially during these trying and uncertain times with a deadly national pandemic and ever-changing energy policies in New York and in Washington.
Leadership doesn't just begin as a Business Agent in the Utility Workers Union of America structure; Shop Stewards play an extremely important role. Having younger steward leaders help many newer members to feel like they have a voice within the union. Steven D’Auria, who became a steward at Con-Ed at 23 and represented his yard for 12 years before becoming a business agent, said that he found younger members were more willing to ask him questions and in doing so, they learned more about the collective bargaining process. While they might be intimidated to ask an older steward or an aged member in the same job title, D’Auria said they were more willing to open up to someone their own age.
Instagram: Local 1-2 President Jim Shillitto with the staff and officers at their staff meeting at the union office in midtown Manhattan. The staff meets weekly to discuss issues affecting all our bargaining units.
Local 1-2 President James Shillitto, who has been a member of the union for 43 years, said that years back they took a look at the union and realized that they needed a little bit of youth added to the local’s leadership, especially as the membership is starting to become younger.
“Bringing in younger members ensures our future,” Shillitto said. “If you rely on the people that are here for many years, you will get a benefit from their experience, but you have to hope the younger members don’t become disillusioned. By getting them involved earlier in their careers ensures that you will have people that stay involved and that the union evolves with the modern times.”
While people often think of the millennials as the young kids still, most of them are now in their mid to late thirties, with some even over 40. At many job titles within the Local 1-2 footprint, members who are 40 years old may be approaching 20 years of working with the company and many are not only established in their jobs, but have young families at home. By encouraging hard-working youthful members to become shop stewards in their early to mid-’20s, has ensured that Local 1-2 has a deep pool of young people to pull from for higher-level positions within the union; positions like Executive Board seats or Business Agents. It also ensures that for the next 20 years there will be a dedicated group of people to take on leadership roles as the older leaders begin to retire or move on to other positions within the national union. Beyond creating a deep bench for the next 20 years, they have also helped to transform the way the union communicates. Now Local 1-2 regularly posts on social media and has an email newsletter and text to get the message out to more of the members who might not read the quarterly newsletter or attend the union meeting because of work/life balance conflicts.
The younger leaders also talked about having more skin in the game. While members in their late 50’s or early 60’s have qualified for all of their benefits and are getting ready to retire, the younger members will still be immediately affected for decades by what happens in the next contract, arbitration, and at the bargaining table. “You would want this because I am of the mindset that I am still working there,” said Frankie “The Fish” Feilecia, the newest Local 1-2 Business Agent who came from the ranks at Con-Ed.
“It’s not as if I retired and am out of Con-Edison. I am still subject to going back to Con-Edison if I don’t pull my weight here. If I went back it would affect me and if I didn’t go back, I keep myself in the mindset that I am still one of the working guys.”
This attitude and approach are paramount when beginning your career in union service and leadership. While Local 1-2’s program to encourage younger members to take leadership roles has produced many leaders, they do warn that it is not for everyone. Many of them said that this is a thankless job where you have to put your ego aside and represent all types of members. “It’s not for everyone, but it’s for the most driven person who really wants to make a difference,” said Michael Pena.
“Too many folks, I believe, have aspirations where they come into a union thinking they do nothing and that does not help us bargain. Our number 1 goal is to bargain collectively and strongly represent anyone new coming into our union; whether they want to be a leader or not. You have to care about everybody but yourself. If you are concerned about what people think of you as a shop steward, you are doing it for the wrong reasons. It’s a selfless job.”
Pena noted that the process to become a leader within the union isn’t an overnight thing. Instead, it took years of hard work, learning things like the contract, and all of the tricks of the trade. He and the other Business Agents also served on committees, served as stewards, and took training classes to get to where they are today. It also takes getting your members to trust you and see that what you are doing is right. They also know that if they lose this trust they will be headed back to their tools after the next internal union election. All the pressures, coupled with demands at home, require a careful balance of being patient with an older frustrated member on the job, and a home life that requires you to “be home.” Sometimes more senior members forget what it’s like to have young kids at home, but that's the job and this that is what these younger leaders signed up for.
Instagram: From left to right, Business Agents Robert Griffin, Steve D'Auria and Richard Nasca speaking with Local 1-2 President James Shillitto at the College Point Yard.
While there are a lot of positives to being a young leader within the union, there are also definitely some negatives. Many of them talked about not being taken seriously when they first started out by corporate or even some of their members. Robert Griffin said that as a younger steward and then Business Agent, he was sometimes looked down upon and people had the perception that because of his age he didn’t know what was going on. This was a common theme among the guys. Local 1-2 President James Shillitto also said that the union has faced a challenge of smoothing things over with older members who felt they were next in line for the position but have now been usurped by a younger member. He said that it isn’t that these older members aren’t worthy, but that the union needs a good mix of ages and talents. He also said that bringing on younger leaders definitely is more staff intensive as these guys need more mentoring from the older leaders and there needs to be a realization that innocent mistakes will happen.
For Local 1-2, bringing on a new generation of union leaders was essential to the future of the local union, but it had to be done the right way. This means buy-in from the senior leadership who are willing to put in the time to teach the younger members the right and wrong way to do things. It also means investing in your membership through programs like a steward’s class, constant modern communications, and allowing these young leaders to join committees and lead.
UCOMM dedicated time and resources to this story because the Local 1-2 model should be an example for other unions in the nation looking to make positive changes for the benefit of their local and their industry. Local 1-2 is doing the right thing and should be recognized for it.
Kris LaGrange contributed to this story.