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Longtime activist labors for cause

In the summer of 1974, Bruce Popper had taken a break from his studies at the University of Rochester and got a job climbing trees.

When he heard that a co-worker, who had been the lead pesticide applicator, died in his late 30s with symptoms of neurological poisoning, Popper started researching pesticides.

Management did not like it, he says. It was a non-union job. He was fired.

Thus began Popper’s decades-long crusade for workers’ rights.

Popper, now 64, is one of the most prominent labor activists in Rochester.

He is president of the Rochester and Vicinity Labor Council, AFL-CIO, an association of 144 local labor unions that represent some 60,000 union members, which he took over in July from retiring labor leader James Bertolone. 

He is also executive vice president of the Rochester and Genesee Valley Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, an association of more than 200 local unions in 11 counties. And he is a vice president of 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, a union with roughly 2,500 local members who work at the University of Rochester Medical Center, Anthony L. Jordan Health Center and several local nursing homes; and a member of 1199 SEIU’s governing council covering over 300,000 active members in several East Coast states.

But in those early days, he was just a young guy from Buffalo with long hair, interested in the anti-war movement of the 1960s, and trying to finish up his philosophy and history degree.

“In those days unions didn’t have great reputation among anti-war protesters,” Popper says. “Construction workers were known to beat up anti-war protesters.”

His first job out of college was at the UR library, cleaning and shelving books.

Across the street at Strong Memorial Hospital that same year, he recalls, employees were trying to form a union. At one point after their vote to unionize, dozens of workers took over the administration office and held a sit-in to force the hospital to recognize the new union.

“Some of us on the campus were watching the developments at the hospital and said, well, that looks good to us,” Popper says.

Early days
Popper joined the committee to organize the non-hospital UR employees, in conjunction with the 1199 union out of New York City. In the mornings before work he would ride his bicycle around campus distributing leaflets.

The effort paid off. The non-hospital employees—facilities workers, food service workers, drivers and library workers—voted to unionize in 1975. In a battle over their first contract, the newly unionized workers went on strike for five days that September and won.

“It was probably the most energized period of my life,” Popper says.

A few years later Popper left his job at the library to work full time for the union as a contract negotiator and organizer.

“He’s a very progressive guy, a very educated and well-read guy,” says Bertolone, who has worked alongside Popper as a labor leader for almost four decades. “He’s open-minded. He’s looking to help bring along the young, but not in his own mold. He’s open to them being who they’re capable of being.”

Popper is also good at rallying community members, not just employees themselves,  to support union causes, Bertolone says, and at supporting minorities and women within his own union.

“He’s been very good at promoting diversity,” Bertolone says.

Popper always has seen his work with the 1199 union as a campaign for social justice, racial equality and fighting poverty. One of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speeches in 1968 was to Local 1199.

“1199 is a movement union,” Popper says. “We’re here not to be in insurance or business. We’re here to fundamentally change the nature of American society to one that’s more equitable. … If you look at King’s later years and what he was doing, this is the unfinished agenda.”

As a union organizer, Popper worked long, late hours for many years. He did not get married until he was in his 30s. When his daughter, Katherine, was born in 1990, he worried about his long hours so much that he committed Thursday mornings to spending time with her.

This is why, in a photograph of a 1992 press conference with then-state Attorney General Robert Abrams, Popper holds his toddler on his lap.

“The only time he could do a press conference in our office was on a Thursday morning, which was daddy morning, so…,” Popper says.

His daughter is now grown and pursuing a career in acting. Popper and his wife, Barbara Sullivan, live in Brighton. In his free moments Popper practices blues harmonica and follows the Rochester blues music scene. Whenever he is in town on a Friday evening, he says, he always listens to Blacks & Blues with Doug Curry on WRUR-FM 88.5.

Joel Seligman, UR president and CEO, has sat across the table from Popper in negotiations for more than a decade.

Popper and a hundred UR employees protested their lack of a contract at Seligman’s inauguration ceremony in 2005. Yet when he and Popper see one another at civic events, there are no hard feelings, Seligman says.

In fact, Seligman says he is not looking forward to the day Popper retires.

“I really respect him,” Seligman says. “He’s a guy who’s totally honest. We often have intellectual disagreements but it’s never personal.”

When asked about retirement, Popper speaks only about the work he still has ahead of him.

Strong team
While Bertolone retired from his regional leadership roles to focus on developing the next generation of leadership at the American Postal Workers Union Local 215, where he is president, Popper says he already has a strong team of young union organizers at the Rochester 1199 SEIU office.

As he makes introductions at the office, he proudly notes how many of the young, committed union workers came up from the front lines: operating room assistant, dental assistant, secretary, cashier.

He expects his organizers to stay at negotiating sessions until the early hours of the morning, he says, but he also expects them to leave the office when they need to, to see their child’s play or soccer game.

“I’m pretty loose in supervision,” Popper says. “I tell my staff on the front end, if I’ve got to worry about where you are I’ve got bigger problems.”

This new generation of leadership will step forward just as the strategy of local unions fundamentally is changing.

The old model—organizing small groups of workers within large companies—has grown increasingly difficult and less effective, Popper says.

Take, for example, the effort to unionize workers at Unity Health System in 2013, he says. It took 15 months of negotiations, 26 all-day bargaining sessions and a battle against the best lawyers from the top union-busting firm in the nation, which Popper estimates billed the hospital system roughly $250,000. He rallied the mayor, state assemblymen, local politicians and clergymen to the cause.

In the end they won, Popper says, “and we got a good union contract that didn’t change a single thing economically for these workers.”

The contract covered only 125 workers out of some 5,000, he says, and then Unity merged with Rochester General and they are in a system that now has some 16,000 workers.

While the union employees are proud of the contract, Popper says, the effort did nothing to fight poverty.

“This isn’t enough anymore,” Popper says. “Our organizing is really stalled because of incredible employer opposition.”

The new model looks more like the Fight for $15, the campaign to raise the minimum wage for fast-food workers, Popper says, or like the work of organizations such as People Organizing Workers for Empowerment and Respect, which defends non-union low-wage workers in Rochester against injustice at work.

“We have to stop focusing on just members if we’re to actually change this country,” Popper says.

The problem with this new model is that nobody pays union dues, Popper says, so it is unclear where revenue will come from to support lobbying and future organizing.

“If we win that (the Fight for $15), which I believe we can, and we win that without organizing the workers who benefit from it, we won’t be able to defend it,” Popper says.

That is what Popper plans to tackle in the years ahead, before retirement.

“If there’s one thing I want to do in my remaining tenure, it’s to figure out the way to organize health care and other workers into a new form of organization that will be successful,” he says.

“We know that the old forms are increasingly limited in their ability to produce real benefits for large numbers of workers,” he says. “The challenge for us as organizers is to figure out what’s the next form of institution that will carry forth the triple struggle of workers’ rights, civil rights and civil liberties in this country. The outcome of that struggle is not determined.”

Bruce Popper
Position: President of the Rochester and Vicinity Labor Council, AFL-CIO; vice president of 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.
Age: 64.
Education: B.A. with distinction, the University of Rochester College of Arts and Sciences, 1974.
Family: Wife Barbara Sullivan; daughter Katherine, 25.
Residence: Brighton.
Hobbies: Playing amateur blues harmonica, listening to Blacks & Blues with Doug Curry Friday evenings on WRUR 88.5, reading.
Quote: “I tell my staff on the front end, if I’ve got to worry about where you are I’ve got bigger problems.”


Julie Kirkwood is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

12/18/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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