Julie Bracero Kelly is the Manager New York New Jersey Regional Joint Board, Workers United (SEIU), and International Vice-President of Workers United. She is being honored by NYCOSH for her outstanding work in advocating for workers’ rights and workplace safety and health, and for her leadership in the creation of the Nail Salon Workers’ Association.
Bracero Kelly has worked in unions for about thirty years. She grew up in a political, union-organizing family and “spent a good portion of time after school in trailers, licking stamps and stuffing envelopes,” she said.
“I got the opportunity to go to strike lines and go to actions. I remember this one strike in D.C. when replacement workers broke the strike. But after awhile, they wanted to form a union. I was so pissed off, and I said that to my dad. He said, ‘This is actually a good thing. They need the union. And now they’re gonna get the union.’ It was this constant conversation for me, trying to figure out what the movement was about.”
Bracero Kelly went to Boston University and was inspired by one of her professors, Howard Zinn, author of The People’s History of the United States.
“You couldn’t get seats,” she recalled of being in Zinn’s class. “Everyone was on radiators and on the floor, just glued to this man.”
After college, she got a job at an OPEIU local in Cambridge Massachusetts, where she was primarily doing administrative political work, but then started taking phone calls. She remembers the exhilaration as the union was making in people’s everyday lives.
“I remember helping a woman get something like $500. It was this utter feeling that this is real stuff that makes this amazing difference and I can be a part of it,” she said.
At that union, Bracero Kelly ended up being a rep and the Director of Organizing. Eventually, she wanted to come back to New York and got an opportunity to lead member leadership development programs and to organize. She went to work with UNITE and was the Assistant National Organizing Director.
Bracero Kelly then went to the Workers’ United New York New Jersey Joint Board and ultimately elected Secretary Treasurer. She was later elected General Manager of the union, which is the top position at the Joint Board.
“I never expected to be in that position. I had expected to organize and run campaigns. “What I call the sleeping on the office floor period of my life,” she joked.
Bracero Kelly saw herself as a change-maker in the who was not content with doing things as they had always been done, but rather in trying to build consensus and create a shared vision about the union. Importantly, she never saw the responsibility of changing things as hers alone, but as something that others need to commit to.
“I know that’s an enormous amount of pressure on union reps and organizers,” she said, “but I think we share it as our goal.”
“The question is, how do you lead with a shared vision, and how do you transform your organization?” she asked rhetorically. “How do you transform executive boards to take on leadership and base our work on the participation of everyone? How do you expect more from the union?”
Bracero Kelly then brought the union into the campaign to organize nail salon workers, in partnership with NYCOSH and Adhikaar of the New York Healthy Nail Salons Coalition.
“When we launched the campaign for nail salon workers, it gave us an opportunity to talk about organizing as a way to build power in a world where our industries are under attack. I know our Executive Board sometimes has their doubts, but what I always want to make sure of, that together all our leaders agree ‘Yes! We back it!’ It’s critical that leaders can tell others why we’re doing this work and why it matters. We’re not just providing a service for people in desperate need; we’re building a movement that can change all our lives.”
When asked about what she saw as the most important work the union is doing, she stated, “I believe 100% it’s developing leaders and our nail salon work.”
She reflected on the changing nature of work and why supporting the organizing campaigns of service-based workers remains so important.
“We’re in bargaining with places we’ve bargained with for 40-50 years. And who ever thought that retail stores wouldn’t exist? We always thought that they’ll have good times, they’ll have bad times, but they’ll exist. Now we have to wonder in the age of Amazon, what will retail look like? We have to challenge ourselves on the very basic assumptions we’ve made about the nature of work. And what does that mean?
“We saw that happen with manufacturing jobs. And the reaction to the Fight for 15 at McDonalds, they created those automated kiosks overnight. So we need to think about the economy and employment in a completely different way. We have to imagine the things that we never want to think about. And then strategize and plan around those things. And I’m so lucky to work with these folks that are doing that.”
Bracero Kelly expressed excitement about the ongoing work of building with her membership, among people who work in different industries from retail and distribution to factories to nail salons. She pointed to the union’s involvement in the One Fair Wage fight, to eliminate the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers.
“One of my most passionate moments around all of this, one of the things we’re doing right, is about to happen,” she said. “On June 19th, at the One Fair Wage Hearing, we’re bringing current union members out. We’ll have our members from different industries engaging in the fight. They’ll be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with workers who have never had the union. They can fight forward together to change our world.”