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February 2023

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'We Made a Commitment':
Good Works a Way of Life for New Jersey Local

For 49 days on the picket line in 2016, striking Verizon workers in New Jersey were bolstered by moral support and kindnesses. Area residents dropped off food and water, and financial relief came from county labor councils and the IBEW Unity Fund.

The good will helped them go the distance, carrying members of East Windsor Local 827 across the finish line to a strong contract and an era of relative labor peace.

Ever since, Business Agent Tom Kelly of the local's Hudson Unit has been rallying members to return the benevolence by paying it forward. And they've never let him down.

"When we came back after the strike, we decided that if we have the opportunity to help other people, we're going to do it," said Kelly, who was barely a week into his job leading the unit when Verizon workers walked out in mid-April.

"We wanted to be about more than just grievances and labor walks," he said. "We made a commitment to our community."

What began with fundraisers for critically ill and injured members, hurricane relief in Puerto Rico, and fellow unions on strike has become an ever-rising crescendo of good deeds, one that kept Kelly's unit as busy as the North Pole during the 2022 holiday season.

They were even busier than expected, it turned out, with a huge 11th-hour appeal that came in while members were prepping a sleigh's worth of gifts for a low-income housing complex.

Within hours of the "Tap into Paterson" website publishing a Nov. 28 story about the Hudson Unit's charity, Kelly got a call from a woman at children's services who was desperate to collect toys for 200 youngsters within 10 days.

"We polled 105 of our members at a virtual meeting, and 97 said, 'No problem, we can do this,'" Kelly said. "In less than a week, we had more than 240 toys that we delivered, along with 300 vocabulary workbooks, to her office in Newark."

The social worker was overwhelmed. "You all are an amazing group of individuals who have not only impacted the lives of children we serve but me as well," she wrote them. "Just when you think the clouds are hanging low and it seems so dark, there's a ray of sunshine that illuminates the atmosphere!!! Your team is the LIGHT!!!"

The generosity came as no surprise to Rachel Keenan, even though the longtime union activist at Verizon wondered how much more members could spare in 2022.

"In all fairness, I think everyone's feeling the pinch right now," said Keenan, who represents workers at central offices in Bergen County as a Local 827 delegate, a role just below chief steward.

But as usual, she was bowled over. "I am so impressed by them, because I know their back stories, I know what they have, and I know their struggles, and they still put their hands in their pockets and give."

The holiday whirlwind began in force six days before Thanksgiving with an epic annual delivery to the Father English food pantry in Paterson — more than 15,000 pounds of groceries.

"We partnered with Verizon, and our members donated at their worksites or contributed money that we shopped with that morning," Kelly said of the bounty of shelf-stable and fresh food that arrived in a caravan of company trucks and members' vehicles.

"It is my favorite thing to do," Keenan said. "But it broke my heart to see the line of people out there in the cold waiting for food."

The activists credit Verizon for supporting many of the union's good works, stretching members' contributions that much further.

Kelly also saluted Local 827's other five units statewide for running their own food and toy drives.

The Hudson Unit, located across the border from New York, has been fine-tuning its game plan for years, with Kelly and chief stewards Pat Glover and Andy Newman relying on a team of delegates and stewards at each garage and worksite.

"Our stewards, they put boxes out, they give members the spiel, and I'm sure some of them roll their eyes — 'There they go again,'" Kelly said with a laugh.

He and his co-chiefs also make the rounds. "We talk about how fortunate we are," Kelly said. "And I always tell the story about the little girl and the toothbrush from the first time that we went to Martin de Porres Village."

Each December since 2016, save for a year's gap during the pandemic, Hudson Unit elves and Santa — aka Glover — have thrown a holiday party for children growing up in the low-income community in Paterson.

With funds donated by members, Newman does much of the shopping, making sure every child receives something special. "Like Santa, I'm checking my list twice to make sure no kid is missed," he said.

On top of presents such as stuffed animals, basketballs, racecars and Bluetooth devices, each child receives a bag that includes a toothbrush, toothpaste, and gloves.

"This little girl ran to her mother that first year and said, 'Look! I got a pink toothbrush!'" Kelly said. "She was so excited. It really put everything in perspective."

Lucy Molina, who raised her family at Martin de Porres and is now its longtime director, described big smiles and squeals of delight during the festivities, and the enduring gift of happy holiday memories.

"This is a very low-income housing project, so they don't have too much," Molina said. "The children, they don't always have the opportunity to be so close to Santa. To see their faces light up is priceless."

They're not the only ones bursting with joy.

"To get the opportunity to touch the hearts of kids, it's an honor and a blessing," said Glover. "I'm sitting there in front, and I'll look at a little kid and they wave and you see a glimmer in their eye. I might be a guy playing Santa, but to them, I am Santa."

He looks forward all year to donning the red suit, fulfilling a lifelong dream. "It was on my bucket list to play Santa," he said. "I'd even practice my ho-ho-hos."

Glover takes mental notes as the children gather in the holiday-trimmed room, seeing "the kid who doesn't stop talking, the girl sitting prim and proper."

Between his observations and tips from Molina and parents, he makes each child's visit with Santa as magical as possible, amazing them with what he knows about their lives. "It's the miracle of Christmas," he said.

He's grateful to his friend and business agent for making it possible.

"None of this happens if it wasn't for Tom Kelly," Glover said. "After the strike, Tom said, 'We're not going to spend all our time processing grievances — we're going to do that, but we're going to do a lot more.' And ever since that day, it's been nothing but a pleasure to be here."

Kelly turns the praise back on others, from members to stewards to the local's big-hearted Business Manager Bob Speer and the area's labor councils.

"I'm extremely fortunate to be involved with so many generous people," he said. "They're all in, all the time."


Business Agent Tom Kelly and members of the Hudson Unit of East Windsor Local 827 make a special delivery to Child Protective Services during the holidays, dropping off more than 240 gifts in response to a social worker's last-minute plea.


Unit members already had given generously to make Christmas merry for children at a low-income housing community where they throw an annual party complete with presents and Santa, aka Chief Steward Pat Glover. The opportunity to play St. Nick and see the youngsters light up is a dream come true, he says.

Serial Giving

The list of holiday good deeds at Local 827 got even longer in mid-December when Joe Baker, a retired Verizon technician dying of cancer, told a TV reporter about his mission to collect boxes of cereal for the homeless. "We called him up and told him we were going to make his Christmas wish come true," Business Manager Bob Speer said. "He told us, 'There's love in this world, and you've just got to find it.' I was holding back tears." Inside a week, they'd collected enough money from members to purchase more than 1,200 boxes of assorted cereals that they packed into pickup trucks and delivered to Baker on Dec. 22. "It means the world to us to be able to help people," Speer said. "Whether it's a hurricane, a snowstorm, a member with a sick child, whatever the need is, we're there."