Past recipient Peter Menard presents Scott Lillie with the Labor Person of the Year Award at the annual Berkshire Central Labor Council breakfast.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Local labor leaders and elected officials celebrated the achievements of organized labor on Sunday morning, while warning that its gains over the past decades are endangered by a changing economy and political environment.
And they called for getting back to basics, by reminding not only the nation but its own members of the role its played in making a better life for families and communities through people like Scott C. Lillie, this year's Labor Person of the Year.
He was one of several recognized for their work with labor at the Berkshire Central Labor Council breakfast on Sunday morning at Itam Club. Albert Ingegni, president of the Berkshire County Regional Employment Board, was cited as a Friend of the Berkshire Labor Council; and a Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Arthur Butler of IUPAT DC 35. Council President Brian P. Morrison welcomed the guests and Dan Dillon was master of ceremonies.
Lillie, a North Adams native and 1989 graduate of the McCann Technical School electrical program, was feted for his many accomplishments as a labor leader for IBEW 2324 and his efforts within the community and in raising funds for the American Cancer Society while his family struggled with cancer.
State Rep. Paul Mark, a past recipient of the award, said Lillie was truly a union "brother."
"There is no union member I ever met that embodies that tradition more than Scott," said Mark. "Scott makes activism into a family affair. I consider Scott to be my brother. Scott has been there for me every step of the way, anything I have ever needed. He has led us with Relay for Life, he has led us with political action, he has led us in educating the members and he has gotten his entire family involved."
The Adams resident joined what was then NYNEX in 1996, becoming shop steward a year later and being appointed to the Executive Board in 1998, serving for eight years and then returning last year. He also has been a member of his local Committee on Political Education, a local registrar and delegate to the Labor Council.
He has been active with Relay for six years and, after his mother died of cancer in 2009, begin organizing a local benefit golf tournament.
"Scott is not only what is best in the labor movement, Scott really represents what's best in our communities," said state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield.
His children Kylee, 11, and Michael, 7, read a note from his oldest daughter, Courtney, who is in college, about their father's work.
A Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Arthur Butler of IUPAT DC 35, by AFL-CIO President Steven Tolman.
"I cannot remember a time when he wasn't involved in making the workplace a better place to be, either," she wrote. "I have seen times when it has been hard to work in the union and other times when it wasn't so hard. Either way, he has stood his ground and fought for what he thought was right, not just for himself, but for all the people surrounding him in his work."
Lillie received commendations from state House, from U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren's office and a host of dignitaries speaking at the breakfast, including Mayors Richard Alcombright and Daniel Bianchi, State Auditor Suzanne Bump, Deputy Chief of Fair Labor Division Jocelyn Jones and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, among others.
George Noel, deputy director of the Division of Industrial Accidents, said Lillie really was doing what union members do.
"This is the stuff we do all the time," he said. "We represent our members, we represent the community, we're out the coaching youth sports, we're out providing people the funds to cure cancer, were out there helping people afflicted with disease. ... That's what we do in the IBEW, we get involved."
At the beginning of the New Deal, "one out of three households in America had an organized labor member living in that family - one out of three - that means one-third of the American people were organized," said Neal, the morning's keynote speaker. "And the great social achievements that came of it, not the least of which is the National Labor Relations Board."
Now, only about 6 percent are organized, a number that jumps to 13 percent when state and federal workers are factored in, he said.
"No union did more to nominate John Kerry than the firefighters unions," said Neal. "Forty percent of the members voted for George Bush."
But it's the president who appoints the Labor Board, he said. "We've gotten away from these traditional arguments. We need to return to them."
The representative pointed to nine attempts in the House just in the last two years to repeal Davis-Bacon, which ensures prevailing wages for subcontractors, which he said was the "linchpin" of the building trades that gave them a middle-class existence.
Unions were in the forefront of advocating for the state's university system, the community college system, health benefits, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, minimum wage, veterans hospitals, earned benefits and the Voting Rights Act. Labor is seeing those benefits chipped away, wages depressed, college tuition spiraling out of reach and the social safety nets are endangered, he said.
"For 30 years in America, we have now had a battle over the role of government in our lives," he said, "and the other side effectively uses the following argument: the government is intrusive, the government is overreaching, the government tries do to much ... It's a carefully calculated argument that's paid for by wealthy people to put an end to Social Security, to put an end to Medicare, and it changes the way you all live as members of organized labor."
Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Steven Tolman, a former legislator, gave a fiery speech defending labor and denouncing attempts to tarnish political candidates that support it, or who are supported by it.
"I very firmly believe that AFL-CIO stands for everything that is right about America," he said. "It stands up for an injustice whether it's in the workplace, whether it's in the community, and most importantly whether it's in the halls of justice."
He, along with others, urged breakfast attendees to sign ballot petitions on raising the minimum wage to $10.50, allowing part-timers to earn sick time and setting standard staffing for hospitals. If successful, the petitions will appear on the ballot for the 2014 election.
"That's what we do, we fight for everybody. We don't just fight for unions," said Tolman, adding that the way to break the "stagnant" stance of organized labor is to get into the communities and show what can be done when everyone works together.
Bump, of Great Barrington and former secretary of labor under Gov. Deval Patrick, said labor's numbers have declined because of the way technology has changed workplaces and of jobs being offshored.
"But that decline in numbers has nothing to do with labor's continuing relevance," she said. "Labor's importance as an institution exists irrespective of the sum of its membership and that's because your values continue irrespective of your numbers.
"The mission of organized labor to treat everyone with dignity in the workplace, to raise up the whole of society, not just your own members. ... You will always be relevant."
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