By Charlene Obernauer
May 18, 2018
Geraldine Stella is a Safety and Health Specialist at the Public Employees Federation, President of her staff union, and a passionate and dedicated member of the occupational safety and health movement. This year, she is NYCOSH’s 2018 Karen Silkwood honoree for her tremendous contributions to the occupational safety and health movement. NYCOSH Executive Director Charlene Obernauer interviewed Geraldine to showcase her work and to inspire others with her story.
Geraldine, like many OSH activists, wasn’t always involved in health and safety.
“I came to OSH a little oddly,” she said. “I started out in the PR Department at PEF and got involved in the staff union (USW Local 9265). There was an indoor air quality issue I started doing some research on and thought it was something I’d be interested in doing. I started taking some classes. And when a job came up in occupational health and safety, I took it. The bug kind of bit me. The idea of helping people was really attractive to me, and that’s just what we do in occupational safety and health.”
However, Geraldine’s interest in occupational safety and health did not emerge from nowhere. She came from a “long line of Union people.” Two of her great-uncles worked in the U.S. Post Office and were shop stewards, her mother was a public school teacher and NYSUT member, and her father worked for the Albany Times Union newspaper in sales and public relations. A Hearst newspaper, the Times Union went on strike two months after Geraldine was born, and her father took her and her twin sister out on the picket line.
“I guess you could say I literally cut my teeth on a picket line,” she said.
Growing up, Geraldine described herself as “painfully shy.” There weren’t any twins in her school, and Geraldine and her sister always wanted to be “as small as possible” and not be noticed.
“Now, give me a microphone, I don’t care how many people are in front of me,” she joked.
Geraldine went on to study graphic design in college, which is what brought her to the Union to begin with, first as an intern, then as a graphic artist. She went back to school to earn a second degree with a focus on Organizational Psychology, using her news skills in her work as an Occupational Safety and Health Specialist.
“The first time I interviewed for a job in the OSH department they wouldn’t hire me – they said I had too big a chip on my shoulder! But eventually I convinced them to take a chance on me. That was 20 years ago, so it all worked out,” she said.
Reflecting on her work, Geraldine noted, “This is my best job. When things get really stressful, I think, at least I love my job, not everyone can say that. I think my greatest accomplishment is what I’m doing here (at PEF). With my OSH co-workers, we have developed Workplace Violence Prevention policies and programs that are a model for workplaces across the nation. With my focus on Organizational Psychology I have worked to create strong labor and management committees to protect workers. For example, I worked with the NYS Department of Corrections to conduct a wall-to-wall risk assessment in one of their correctional facilities – the first time the unions were allowed to do so. As a result we developed a Workplace Violence Risk Assessment training that is being delivered to each Correctional Facility in NYS.
“I’ve been able to really change things and develop strong programs to help injured workers with workers’ compensation, which is not very sexy,” she continued, “but when people are out on comp and don’t know how they’re paying their bills, if you can help them find some money or find some way to get their benefits, that’s a big accomplishment. In one case, because I worked with this one person, she went from not knowing if she was going to lose her house to getting a sizable amount of money. And this was such a great relief to her.”
Geraldine reflected on the changes that have happened politically throughout her time in the Union, from the election of President Barack Obama to today.
“I remember when the election happened, it changed everything, I felt like we had less racism and hate,” she said.
She then reflected on the divisive nature of today’s politics and how she wishes to see the country change, and for people to strive towards a greater sense of understanding of one another.
“It’s disheartening to see that all of this change in a positive direction got obliterated. It’s really this sense of Otherness. It’s this us-against-them. If you’re a democrat, I hate you. If you’re a Republican, I hate you,” she said. “People have to start being able to say, ‘It’s all right if we disagree, but we have to work together and come up with a compromise. I don’t need to make you believe everything I believe, and then move forward.’”
Geraldine noted that she believes this divisiveness is “used as a tool” against Unions and other groups that fight for equality and inclusiveness.
“I have faith,” she said, “that the Labor movement will survive current attacks and grow even stronger.”