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Worker Institute Blog

The Worker Institute brings together researchers, educators and students with practitioners in labor, business and policymaking to address issues related to confronting systemic inequality and building a fair economy, robust democracy and just society. We will share opinion, analysis, research, data, insights and training from our faculty and staff.

Cornell Union Leadership Institute Student Survives Covid-19

Robert Kelley

Gene Carroll

In this season of a history-making pandemic, leaders inside labor organizations are being tested in unprecedented fashion.

One dramatic—and ultimately uplifting—example is the story of Robert Kelley, a member of the current class of the NYS AFL-CIO/Cornell Union Leadership Institute (ULI) from NYC-based Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union (TWU). Kelley is an elected officer of Local 100, serving as Division Chair of the union’s Stations Department. 

According to a Local 100 spokesperson, as of June 26, some 97 of the union’s members—front-line, essential workers in the subways, and buses—have died from Covid-19. Hospitalized with the Covid-19 virus, Robert Kelley came close to joining that list. Fortunately, he overcame his personal trial and recently returned to his job representing and protecting his union’s members. The Father’s Day edition of the NY Daily News (June 21, 2020) profiled his story under the headline, “Super-dads who beat coronavirus celebrate Father’s Day with their families.”  

During Robert Kelley’s three weeks in the hospital with COVID-19 in April, he called into an on-line session of the ULI from his hospital bed.  

“I was struggling to breathe—at that point, I did not know if I would make it or not—but I knew I’d draw some strength by connecting with my Cornell family,“ Kelley said.  

He is back on the job now focused on protecting the 6,000 TWU Local 100 members he represents.

“My biggest challenge is helping my members deal with the fear and anxiety about being exposed to COVID-19. They are essential, front-line workers—cleaners and station agents. When they see me it helps them reduce that anxiety. Hopefully, I can help instill in them some faith that if they use PPE and stick to all the safety precautions—and they see me with them out on the job—that will make a difference. They know I fought the virus and I am fighting for them.”

If leading by example is the best way to inspire leadership in others, Robert Kelley’s actions show us the way.