In Memoriam: Celebrating Ida Torres

Photo by Rochelle Semel
Thursday, June 9, 2016

Ida Torres was not only a renowned New York City labor leader, but also she was a valued member of, partner to and collaborator with Cornell’s ILR School.  

Whether supporting ILR’s educational programs, or assisting students and research faculty, she enriched the ILR presence, supported the ILR mission, and indeed, enhanced ILR’s reputation. Ida was always a front-line defender of the ILR School's mission. ILR has been a beneficiary of her vision, grit and pride.

Ida Torres liked to call herself “a worker for workers.” She was a union activist almost from the moment of her birth in New York City. Her father was a founding member of the National Maritime Union. Her stepmother was a “chair lady” for the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union who brought the workers’ concerns to the attention of the employer.

Torres brought the union sensibility she learned from her parents with her when she started her first union job as a telephone operator with Local 231 of the Federation of Architects, Engineers, and Technicians. Continuing in the vein of working for labor, she became a finance clerical employee for District 65 before moving into a position as office manager for Retail Wholesale & Department Store Union Local 3 United Storeworkers, the union representing workers at Bloomingdale’s. The 15-day strike at Bloomingdale’s in 1965 changed Torres’s career trajectory. Impressed with her dedication and fervor, the workers petitioned the union that she become an organizer for Local 3.

Rising through the ranks, she became vice president in 1977, secretary-treasurer in 1994 and president in 1998, a position she held until her retirement. She has played an active role on the New York City Labor Council, AFL-CIO, serving as both treasurer and president of the Hispanic Labor Committee, an advisory committee to the council.

Torres has been on the forefront on the struggle for workers’ rights, and, specifically, the rights of women and minority workers. She participated in the 1963 Civil Rights March in Washington, the founding of the Coalition of Labor Union Women and the National Council of Puerto Rican Women. Torres has also been active in the NAACP, the National Conference for Puerto Rican Civil Rights and the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement.  She has been active in coordinating the summer conferences for women sponsored by the University and College Labor Educator Association, now the United Association for Labor Education, for over 40 years.

Torres brought her passion for the labor movement into the classroom. She was an instructor for the Harry Van Arsdale Center for Labor Studies-SUNY and at Cornell ILR’s Labor Studies Program. Her continuous relationship with one of the ILR’s School’s major leaders, Professor Lois Gray, over decades on personal and professional levels was a classic example of how ILR works across the academic world and the world of practice.

Torres’s work has been recognized by the National Organization of Women with the Susan B. Anthony Award; the Labor History Association with the John Commerford Labor Education Award; and the Queens College Law School (CUNY) with an honorary doctorate.

On a personal note, as a faculty researcher, Ida was a good friend and a superb colleague. She was exceedingly generous with her time and insight. She allowed me and my team to work with Retail Wholesale & Department Store Union members to further our research agenda. Without Ida, some of work the work we were able to do under the umbrella of the Smithers Institute at ILR would not have been possible. Ida was one of a kind, and she will be genuinely missed.

Samuel B. Bacharach
McKelvey-Grant Professor
Cornell ILR

(Photo credit and rights: Rochelle Semel)