John Durso got into the labor movement when he joined Waldbaum’s supermarket as a deli clerk in 1970. He is now president of Local 338, which represents 16,000 employees at supermarkets, drug stores, group homes, and other locations. He is also president of the Long Island Federation of Labor, which has 250,000 members. Durso is a presence just about anywhere on Long Island. He is a member of the Long Island Association, the Long Island Regional Economic Development Council, the Rauch Foundation and the United Way of Long Island.
What challenges does labor face in 2020? One of the most significant is the anti-worker rulings that have come down from the National Labor Relations Board. These will have a detrimental effect upon all unions in their ability to organize new workers. Another is the direction in which our country is headed. We need to stop the attack on workers and the environment. We need to roll back the tax breaks for the very rich and instead invest in child care, the protection of voter rights, and to protecting America’s pension system.
How do you plan to deal with these challenges? Just like we did with the Janus decision and the New York State Constitutional Convention. Janus was meant to hurt us. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public sector employees had the right not to pay union dues. But in New York, we educated those employees and told them about the value of a strong union contract. In 2017, New York voters rejected a Constitutional Convention. We talked then about the lost rights and benefits that might result from a full-scale overhaul of the state’s constitution.
What role will labor on Long Island play in the 2020 elections? We expect Long Island and the Long Island labor movement to play a major role in this coming election cycle. We are lucky to have two great partners in Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and Tom Suozzi has stepped up in Congress, but with Congressional District 2 an open seat and Congressional District 1 in which we have nothing more than a Trump echo, we need to take those two seats and turn them into pro-worker seats.
What should the new president do for labor in 2021? America’s workers need to know that their pensions are secure, and that Corporate America is not going to be allowed to destroy defined benefit plans. We need a Labor Department and an NLRB that is labor friendly, not one that is looking to harm the labor movement. We need to strengthen the Affordable Care Act. It has done many good things for millions of Americans and now is the time to improve upon it.
Why did you support legislation legalizing marijuana in New York State? As the labor union currently representing hundreds of workers in the New York medical cannabis industry, including here on Long Island, we have a unique perspective of why legalization of adult-use cannabis makes sense. It creates economic opportunities. The jobs in the medical cannabis industry are good jobs. They’re mostly full time and our contracts have set an industry standard in New York with guaranteed wage increases, health care coverage, and retirement benefits.
Union membership has declined over the last 20 years. How can this trend be reversed? In New York, labor is strong. We are the second highest in percentage of labor union members, second only to Hawaii. But still we need strong labor law reforms. Over 60 percent of workers who are not in a union want to be and we need to change the law to make it easier, not harder, to join a union. We need to look at new trends in our economy and be able to address the needs of the workers in those various industries.
How did you get involved in the labor movement? I began my career as a deli clerk for Waldbaum’s, in 1970, where I met Manny Laub, who was the union rep. He signed me into the union, and we began a friendship that lasted for the rest of his life. In 1984, Manny, who had become the president of our union, Local 338, asked me to join the 338 staff. Fifteen years later, I became the president of Local 338 and in 2005 I became the president of The Long Island Federation of Labor [AFL-CIO].
Do you plan to remain in your present position in the near term? I love the work that I do so I have no plans to retire anytime soon. I feel like I’m still in my prime. The day I get up and don’t feel like going to work, then it’s time to go.