Learning to lead: ILR institute trains the next generation of union organizers

On blustery night in late January, Ka’jeem Hill nodded at two men in coveralls walking by garbage trucks as big as elephants in a cavernous sanitation depot in Brooklyn. A union representative, Hill visits workers around 9 p.m., before they set out on their nightly routes.

The men saw Hill and immediately walked over for a chat.

“I say, ‘Hey, what’s going on? How’s everything? How’s your family?’” Hill said. “I see if anybody has any issues as far as a medical problems, or if any new hires want to know more about union dues, initiation fees. Any issues as far as suspensions, write-ups, I handle.”

“He don’t play,” sanitation worker Justice Glave said about Hill. “Any time we call, he comes through. Any problems we have, he takes care of it. Like the conversation we were having over there, about compensation, he’s going to handle it.”

Ka’jeem Hill, a participant in the Union Leadership Institute, serves 700 sanitation workers as a business agent and organizing director at the Laborers’ International Union of North America’s Local 108.

A former sanitation worker, Hill is one of 32 labor professionals set to graduate June 6 from the AFL-CIO/Cornell-ILR Union Leadership Institute (ULI). Based in the ILR School, the year-long program prepares New York’s up-and-coming union leaders to strengthen their organizations and advance the rights of all workers as the state’s labor activity is on a rapid rise.

About 20% of New York workers are union members – or 1.7 million people, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That rate of unionization is about twice the national average, and the highest in the country except for Hawaii. The state also has the second-highest number of unionized workers in the nation, behind California – a much more populous state.

“You get a sense of the really important role that unions play in New York state’s economy,” said Kathleen Mulligan, interim executive director of the Worker Institute in ILR. “How do we do business in New York? We do it with union workers.”

Unions benefit all employees, whether they belong to a union or not, said Elaine Kim, senior extension associate and director of the ULI program.

“In a union-strong state like New York, we have higher wages, we have more health care coverage, we have better unemployment insurance, we actually have better democratic systems,” Kim said. “Where you have strong unions, these things go up.”

“ULI had a very dramatic effect on me as a human being and certainly on me as a leader,” said Roberta Reardon, New York commissioner of labor and a 2005 ULI graduate. “I always tell people, I fully believe that one of the reasons I ended up being New York’s commissioner of labor was because I went to ULI.”

The importance of having a union isn’t abstract for Hill, who worked at a sanitation company after getting out of jail in 2007. His first job paid just $80 per grueling 18- to 21-hour shift in notoriously unsafe conditions. A coworker was killed by a truck in 2017, and the following year a pedestrian was killed by a truck operated by the same driver. Workers lost fingers handling containers and Hill’s right leg was crushed against a telephone pole as he dangled off the back of a rear-loader. (Amid scrutiny, the company, Sanitation Salvage, surrendered its license and closed in 2018.)

“Every day I worked, I knew I was being exploited,” Hill recalled. “But I didn’t know my rights. I didn’t know there was actually someone who could help me fight for a raise without me having to jeopardize my job, or just to speak up for me.”

Today, Hill is a business agent and an organizing director at the Laborers’ International Union of North America’s Local 108. He serves about 700 sanitation workers in New York City, upstate New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
“I let these workers know that they’ve got a voice, and I’m here to defend them any way I can.”

A judgment-free zone

Hill, who dropped out of high school as a teenager, felt intimidated before he walked into the ILR School’s King-Shaw Hall for the first ULI session in July 2023.

But immediately he saw this was a different type of class, with participants exploring their biases and strengths to become more effective leaders. Hill and his classmates identified their core values and social identities. They talked about the first time they had seen or experienced injustice. They practiced meditation to reduce stress.

Personal leadership is the first of three themes covered in ULI over five intensive weeks or long weekends around the state: first in Ithaca, then New York City, Albany and Buffalo, and Long Island in May.

“They’re thinking about triggers, they’re thinking about mental models, mindful leadership, how to do deep listening … fundamental building blocks of a leadership practice,” Kim said.

Elaine Kim, director of the Union Leadership Institute, leads a session in Buffalo, New York, at the headquarters of the 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, in March.

Participants come from public and private sector unions that represent teachers, civil servants, doctors, security officers and building trades. The variety of perspectives is essential, Mulligan said, to “build deep relationships, across groups of people who wouldn’t normally necessarily relate to each other.”

In one, participants were asked to describe a transformative moment that led them to ULI.

Hill talked about getting kicked out of his family’s house at age 14. He sold drugs to survive, and by age 17 had been in and out of jail. He began to reevaluate his decisions. “I lost a lot of good friends to the streets and in jail.”

Homeless and unable to sleep in a cold staircase one night, he thought about a Japanese anime character who set aside his pride to help others. That prompted Hill to reach out to a friend, who helped him get the job with Sanitation Salvage. “That moment changed me,” he said, “because I asked for help when I never do.”

After working for Sanitation Salvage, he joined the union. “The union saved my life, because I was going to go back to hustling and they offered me a job,” he said. “They saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.”

ULI’s judgment-free approach made him feel he could tell his story. “In ULI, they tell you, ‘Please, we’d rather see the authentic you,’” Hill said. “It’s helping me come out of my shell and show what I have to give.”

‘We work together’

At around 10 p.m., Hill drove from Brooklyn into Manhattan to talk with a sanitation worker who wanted to join Local 108 because of its medical and retirement benefits. Then he headed to back to Brooklyn to check on a worker there.

“Normally union reps don’t do that,” Hill said. “I try to work two nights a week to see if the workers are working safely, so we don’t have to worry about a suspension or termination. I coach them, so we work together.”

By then he and his ULI classmates had attended retreats in New York City and Albany, where they had explored organizational development. They learned to assess their organizations, understand precarity in areas like the gig economy and globalization, and advance diversity, equity and inclusion. They studied how to build agreements with stakeholders, organize union members and run campaigns.

Howard Halberstadt, a member of the International Union of Operating Engineers, talks with Seung Lee, a member of the United Federation of Teachers, in King-Shall Hall in July.

That’s just one example of how ULI gives upcoming and active union members the tools and experience to move into critical leadership roles, said Mario Cilento, a Cornell trustee and president of the New York State AFL-CIO, which is a co-sponsor of ULI. “The program has helped guide some of the most impactful leaders of our time and will play an integral role in helping to mold the next generation of leaders for the future.”

Hill had already begun applying those lessons in his work.
He was inspired to begin planning a brigade – a group to get members active and engaged in the Local 108. “It’s going to be a waste brigade, that’s what I’m calling it,” Hill said. The concept became Hill’s ULI leadership project, an initiative that each participant creates to focus on through the year, with classmates acting as peer coaches.

A brigade could help create a sense of community among the union members by cleaning up neighborhood parks or giving out turkeys at Thanksgiving, he said – and set them up to recruit new members.

“My union’s Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust helped me to create a curriculum for it,” Hill said. “I’m teaching union members how to organize. It’s not more talking, it’s more listening. And that’s how you engage in organizing.”

‘They’re listening to me more’

Two months later, in March, David Unger ’02, a ULI facilitator and senior extension associate, wrote two words on a flip chart in a conference room in Buffalo: “courageous conversations.”

Unger asked the participants to describe a difficult discussion they’d been avoiding. One said a colleague sabotages the union’s game-plan during negotiations. Another said she had to talk to her boss about her untenable workload. The class worked in pairs to identify specific risks, rewards and goals of having those conversations.

“Once you start really trying to name the risks, they become more manageable. Then we have this ability to weigh them against the potential rewards or the risks of avoiding the conversation,” Unger said. “The potential rewards also get underestimated. The reward of having a culture of courageous conversations is we can be more powerful, both as individuals and as leaders, we can build more powerful organizations. Don’t lose sight that there is real power when we’re able to honestly confront these things.”

Hill had already started to have courageous conversations. He met with New York City Council member Sandy Nurse, who represents District 37 (Brooklyn) to advocate for workers who were not compensated properly. Hill has scheduled a meeting with Council Member Sean Abreu (District 7), who chairs the council’s Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management, to promote the safe disposal of e-bike batteries, which have caught fire in garbage trucks, endangering sanitation workers.

Ka’jeem Hill, a participant in the Union Leadership Institute, talks with a classmate in Buffalo, New York, in March.

And Hill also talked with a sanitation depot operations manager about low morale and high turnover among drivers. “He said, ‘After talking to you, we’re trying to create a charm school for their supervisors.’ So it has been working,” Hill said. “They’re listening to me more – the union rep!”

In May, Hill and his classmates will cover ULI’s third theme: movement building. They’ll explore the history of labor movements and community, partnerships and coalitions. After talking with classmate who is organizing Amazon’s cleaners, Hill hopes to organize Amazon’s laborers. “He’s already there, establishing the footwork. So it will be good to communicate with him,” Hill said.

Perhaps most importantly, after ULI, he can see himself moving up to higher positions within his local.

“I’m more confident. I go into meetings and I believe in myself more,” Hill said. “It’s a big difference. Before I was quiet, and now I’m doing the talking. ULI helped me out with that a lot. Because I was never that kind of guy.”

The story was developed by Susan Kelley and the video was developed by Jason Koski, with support from Matt Fondeur. The infographic was developed and edited by Caitlin Cook, Eduardo Merchán and Marijke van Niekerk.

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Kaitlyn Serrao