AFSCME Labor Scholarship Named for Union’s Lady of Steel

Retired DC 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts speaking at the annocuement of the Lillian Roberts Endowed Scholarship, at her left, DC 37 Exec. Dir. Henry Garrido, and at right AFSCME President Lee Saunders. Photo: Mike Lee


DC 37’s own “Lady of Steel,” retired Executive Director Lillian Roberts, was honored on July 13 by AFSCME President Lee Saunders, DC 37 Executive Director Henry Garrido, and other dignitaries at an event unveiling a new scholarship for union members or their children interested in labor studies.

“Without Lillian Roberts, there would be no Education Fund,” Garrido said. “Without Lillian Roberts, this union would have no Welfare Fund. I am a testament to the influence she had on many of our leaders.”

During the event, AFSCME announced a scholarship in her name through the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Labor and Urban Studies.

“Lillian is such an unbelievable woman in the work she has done and the accomplishments she has made,” Saunders said. “We wanted to set up a scholarship that would reward DC 37 or AFSCME going to CUNY, giving them some help to finish their schooling so maybe one day we can have another Lillian Roberts on our hands.”

Roberts said she is honored to have this scholarship in her name.

“Even though I am retired, my mind is always about what you are doing and how important it is to do what can be done right here. I’m just grateful and hope this scholarship brings out the love, admiration, and care future students will have for our brothers and sisters,” she said.

The Lillian Roberts Endowed Scholarship awards $1,250 per term for one AFSCME member or their child and another for one DC 37 member or their child.

“We know the power of scholarships will be transformational for so many who will appreciate this opportunity and feel incredibly blessed to be the recipients,” said CUNY Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez. “The part that gives me extra joy and pleasure is this scholarship is named after Lillian.”

As a Nurse’s Aide in Chicago in 1947, Roberts began her journey of becoming an influential and powerful labor figure. After witnessing and enduring abusive practices by managers, she fought back and became a Shop Steward. In 1959, Roberts was hired by AFSCME’s Chicago District Council. In 1964, she became the first Black woman to serve as an AFSCME International Vice President.

The following year, DC 37’s new Executive Director Victor Gotbaum brought her to New York where she led the organizing campaign in the city’s public hospitals. That victory brought tens of thousands of new members into the union, leading it to become, as it is today, the largest municipal union in New York City.

Roberts served DC 37 as Associate Director before she was appointed as New York State Labor Commissioner in 1981.

In 2002, Roberts was elected to serve as DC 37 Executive Director, a position she held until retiring at the end of 2014. As a senior administrator and union leader, Roberts helped develop innovative programming for the DC 37 Education Fund and, as Executive Director, held her ground against then-Mayor Michael J. Bloomberg while guiding DC 37 through the economic crisis of 2008 and its recovery.

For more information about the Lillian Roberts Endowed Scholarship, visit

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