By DANIEL KITTREDGE George Nee's involvement with the labor movement dates back more than five decades, to the late 1960s. He worked construction as a member of the Laborers in his hometown of Syracuse, New York, before heading off to Boston College. It
George Nee’s involvement with the labor movement dates back more than five decades, to the late 1960s.
He worked construction as a member of the Laborers in his hometown of Syracuse, New York, before heading off to Boston College. It was there, in 1969, that he was inspired to leave his studies and help organize a grape boycott for the United Farm Workers of America in Dorchester. This was, in the words of Chris Sabitoni from the Laborers’ International Union of North America, the moment of Nee’s “calling to the civil rights movement.”
Nee’s success in the grape boycott caught they eye of organizers and led to new opportunities with the union – including, for a time, work in California alongside legendary labor leader Cesar Chavez.
“I earned the grand salary of $5 a week, plus room and board,” Nee recalls. “And that was the same amount Cesar made.”
In the next few years, Nee would serve as part of a security detail for Chavez – “I was essentially his bodyguard for a while” – and accompany him and a handful of others on a 40-day march across California to raise awareness among workers of a new law giving them the right to organize.
“It was pretty amazing,” Nee said of that experience. On a recent trip to California for a wedding, he noted, he drove along some of the same roads on which he’d once marched.
Nee’s roots in Rhode Island trace back nearly as long as his overall involvement in organized labor. In 1971, he arrived in the Ocean State to help oversee a lettuce boycott for the United Farm Workers. In 1976, he returned to the state to form his own union, an organization of jewelry, clerical and health care workers that became Service Employees International Union Local 76. The effort, he said, was based on “conversations and inspiration from” Chavez.
Flash forward to 2021, and Nee, a Cranston resident for the past 36 years, has become a pillar of the labor movement locally. He was recently reelected as president of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, an organization he first joined as executive director in 1983. He has also served as the union’s secretary-treasurer and was first voted to be its president in 2009.
Nee’s achievements made him a natural fit for the United Way of Rhode Island’s Dante F. Mollo Labor United Award, which recognizes the strong partnership between the nonprofit organization and the labor movement. A past UWRI board member, he received the honor last week during the organization’s 95th Annual Celebration, which was held virtually.
There was a special significance to this year’s award, too, beyond simply recognizing Nee’s contributions to labor and social services in Rhode Island. Nee knew and worked with the late Dante Mollo, a steelworker who had a long partnership with UWRI.
Mollo, Nee said, “was just a force of nature that was out there helping people … He set a tremendous example.”
While Mollo’s partnership with UWRI preceded the creation of the 211 program and hotline – which connects residents with various services, from rental assistance to help with utilities and food – Nee said he was “his own 211.”
“It means a lot to me to be remembered under his name,” he added.
Testimonials offered during the Annual Celebration spoke to the impact Nee has had during his decades working in Rhode Island.
Patrick Crowley, secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, called Nee “my friend and my hero.”
“For decades, George has fought tirelessly for the people who don’t always get the recognition they deserve,” he said. “From the CNAs and nurses in our nursing homes, to the construction workers trying to get a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, to the cashier at the local market who’s trying to get by on minimum wages, George fights harder than anyone I know to ensure people can go to work with their head help high and get home safe.”
Sabitoni, a member of UWRI’s Board of Trustees, called Nee a “legendary leader, union brother and mentor to all of us in the labor movement,” as well as a “a real Rhode Island treasure and icon” who “has made his mark within the rich history of this state.”
“Throughout his career, George has become a stalwart in our state and is highly respected by the labor community, business leaders and elected officials … Make no mistake about it, one of the main reasons why Rhode Island has one of the highest percentages of unionized labor in the entire country is due to the steady hand leadership of president Nee,” Sabitoni said.
During an interview with the Herald ahead of last week’s virtual ceremony, Nee spoke about the relationship between UWRI and the labor movement, his hopes for the future, and his experience as a resident of Cranston.
Nee said encouraging union members and affiliates to support UWRI through donations and volunteerism has been an long-term focus for the Rhode Island AFL-CIO.
“We try to set that standard of, give some money but also give some of your time and talents to them,” he said. Literacy has been a particular area of interest, he noted, citing book donation drives and other efforts.
Nee said he is “very much encouraged” by UWRI’s strategic vision and the efforts of its leadership to “interject themselves into changing policy and making those fundamental changes.”
“I’m very happy with the direction they’re going in,” he said.
Of his new term as president of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, Nee said: “It’s always humbling to be elected by such a diverse group of unions representing public sector, private sector, building trades, manufacturing … You kind of have to have an understanding and appreciation for all the work these unions do on behalf of their members.”
While union membership has declined nationally over several decades, Nee said he continues to view the labor movement as a vital and essential force. He pointed to a recent increase in strike activity across the country – the most in “many, many years,” he said – as a sign that workers are willing to stand up for their “fair share” in a dramatically changing economy.
“People always say I’m an optimist. To me, it’s a better way to go through life. Nationwide, I think we have turned the corner. I see a lot of organizing opportunities,” he said.
He added: “The terrible income inequality in this country has led people to understand that the labor movement is a major countervailing force to the power of corporate America. It’s the only shot that workers have to stand up … to have a voice on the job.”
In terms of Cranston, Nee said he views the city as having “been run, in my opinion, very professionally” over the years. The community, he said, has continually demonstrated its commitment to “taking care of people first.” He noted that all of his children attended the city’s public schools, which he called “excellent.”
“I think it’s a great community. I think it’s got a lot of great resources … We’ve enjoyed and appreciate living there,” he said.
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