“The Strength is in the People.” A Talk with Robert Paese, Union Organizer

Organizing,” says Robert Paese, Business Representative/Organizer, “is tough. It’s not fun. You might have eleven months of misery trying to get the job done. But when that one person thanks you and says, ‘You really helped me and my family out,’ it makes it all worth it.”

Robert, of Valley Stream, New York, has a background in diesel mechanics. He attended trade school for automotive and diesel and, after graduating, went to work for Cummins Engine Company in the Bronx. During his 20 years there, he became part of the union negotiating committee and wound up as shop steward. “So when I saw an opportunity to come and work for the machinists,” he says,” it was a natural progression.”

Robert wears two hats for District 15, Local 447, and IAMAW (International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers). As a business rep, he says, “my job involves servicing of the membership. That can be as basic as getting a phone call asking about a contract interpretation to fighting a grievance situation with the company to basic education of the company—talking about the labor movement, trying to move everybody forward.”

Robert is also an IAMAW organizer. He says that despite the reported decline in membership in unions nationally, he feels that “union solidarity is very strong, Maybe that’s because I live in New York State, which is a very pro-union state.” (The 2022 CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies “State of the Unions” report indicates that New York State has more union members—1.68 million—than any state except California, which has a much larger population, and credits New York City with “[leading] the nation in the recent wave of union organizing.”

Robert believes that since the COVID pandemic, people seeking wage and job protections have wanted to join unions “more and more every day. IAMAW has been pretty successful. We organized the Apple store workers down in [Towson] Maryland,” making it the first unionized Apple store in the U.S., an effort CNBC.com calls “a significant achievement for organized labor.”

“We’re seeing a lot of outside-the-norm organizing now. One of our biggest organizing successes is the Independent Drivers Guild, which represents Uber and Lyft drivers and was started by the machinists. We saw with the gig economy where these for-hire workers were receiving no rights or benefits at all and we were able to give them dignity in the workplace. We see the future and we’re pushing hard for that future.”

How do union organizing efforts get started? “A lot of times people will come to us and look to be represented,” Robert says. “Other times it’s word of mouth, starting a conversation with people. You’re out having dinner with people and you may say, ‘How do you like your job?’ Some people will give you their honest opinion. They’re unhappy with the way they’re being treated. And you say, ‘You know, you don’t have to stand for this. You do have options. There is help out there.’”

The IAMAW is a broad-based, diverse union. “Just in my assignment alone, I go from machinists to mechanics to office workers to food service workers.” Each of these worker groups has their own special nuances. “My background is mechanics. That’s easy for me to figure out, since I know how the mechanics industry works, but then you get thrown into working with food service people and you have to figure out how the tip economy works! You have to become an expert in their working environment because each one is different.”

As well as being an IAMAW business rep and organizer, Robert is on the Executive Boards of both the Long Island Federation of Labor and the New York City Central Labor Council. He is also Political Director of the New York State Council of Machinists.

When asked if he had any last thoughts or advice for union members and supporters, Robert responded: “Educate yourself! See what’s actually going on out there. The more people that are labor-strong, union-strong, the better everyone else is at the end of the day. Remember: the strength is in the people. Not in the organizations.”