Eddie Kay An Appreciation

April 21, 2022

The man known as the “dean of labor organizers” always put the members first.

Screen Shot 2022-04-21 at 4.52.42 PM.pngWith the death of Edward (Eddie) Kay on Feb. 15, the progressive movement lost one of its most celebrated organizers. Kay stepped down from his post of 1199 Executive Vice President in 1999, but continued non-stop activity as a union consultant, educator and organizing guru until his illness and death at age 89.

Kay began his 1199 career in 1962 as a Brooklyn drugstore clerk.

During the stormy 1960s, he became a delegate, helped organize 1199’s first Rite Aid store, marched for civil rights and led a movement within the Union to oppose the Vietnam War.

He joined the 1199 staff in 1967 and within eight months became the acting director of the Hospital Division Queens-Long Island area.

The area soon garnered the reputation of being among the best organized with the most savvy and militant members. Kay pointed to his mentor, Eliot Godoff, the leader of the 1199 hospital organizing campaign, as an example of sound and effective organizing techniques.

In addition to doubling the number of 1199 nursing homes on Long Island and bringing in the Union’s first RNs, Kay helped lead the 1972 campaign to organize wealthy and powerful Presbyterian Hospital. Many of the delegates he helped train rose to the highest ranks within the Union.

He also helped lead the historic rank-and-file Save Our Union campaign that won control of the Union in 1986 and returned 1199 to its progressive path.

Kay’s statement upon retirement summed up his organizing philosophy: “In the long run, victories are only victories when members have really fought for them and feel ownership. Every time this is not done, your institutions become less strong and less able to fight in the future. The boss fears the Union in the shop more than he fears the staffers and officials on 43rd Street (the former Union headquarters).”

It is fair to say that the Union victories in Long Island and Queens during his tenure changed the lives of tens of thousands of members and their families, when they negotiated strong healthcare and pension benefits for the first time. But Kay was never one to take credit and made sure that members were always front and center during any victory lap. He applied the lessons of rank-and- file leadership in his work with many unions after he left 1199.

They included The Laborers Union, Transit Workers Local 100, Transit Union bus drivers on Staten Island, Asbestos Workers, District Council 1707 non-profit workers in New York and others.

Kay was also a crack negotiator and political operative. “He’s the best negotiator I’ve ever seen,” said Inez Murphy, a communications clerk at United Presbyterian Residence in Woodbury, Long Island, in an 1199 News story about Kay’s retirement.

In the same article, the then 1199 President, Dennis Rivera, noted, “Without Eddie’s leadership, we would not be where we are today.”

When news of Kay’s death spread, tributes poured in online and in publications throughout the nation.

Virtually all mentioned his organizing achievements. Among those paying tribute was former New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio.

“The Labor Movement Has Lost a Great Organizer” is the headline of a tribute article written by David Kranz, former director of 1199’s Professional and Technical Dept. and a leader of the 1980s Save Our Union movement. The piece in Portside.org touches on many of Kay’s countless accomplishments. Kranz concludes:

“Eddie’s legacy included training a whole generation of leaders, both in 1199 and other unions.” His influence will certainly live on at 1199.

Kay is survived by his long-time devoted partner, 1199 VP Vladimir Fortunny.

1199 Magazine | March / April 2022