Web ExclusiveOn January 2, Charlene Obernauer stepped into retiring executive director Joel Shufro's size large shoes at the New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health (NYCOSH). Obernauer spent the past four years running another coalition-based labor advocacy group, Long Island Jobs with Justice.   

Obernauer succeeds Shufro, who is retiring after serving as NYCOSH’s executive director for most of its 35-year history. NYCOSH is a membership organization of workers, unions, community-based organizations, health and legal professionals, and other activists who seek to extend and defend every person’s right to a safe and healthful work environment.

The next level

Lee Clarke, chair of NYCOSH’s board, said the board was pleased to have found a new leader who can build on what Shufro has done. “Charlene Obernauer has enthusiasm and fresh ideas,” Clarke continued. “We feel comfortable and confident that she will be able to bring NYCOSH to the next level.”

“We are very excited that Charlene Obernauer will join NYCOSH’s staff as executive director. She will bring new energy to NYCOSH. Her organizing experience, work with unions and community-based organizations, and her writing and social media skills will enable her to transform NYCOSH into a more activist organization,” Shufro said.

Obernauer is an organizer and writer living in New York City. She has just departed as the executive director of Long Island Jobs with Justice, a coalition of labor unions, community groups, students, and people of faith advocating for economic justice. She has headed up a number of economic justice campaigns, including the Long Island Coalition for a Minimum Wage Hike. Obernauer is the founder of the Long Island Bus Riders’ Union, and co-founded the Community/Farmworker Alliance in New York City. She also organizes Walmart workers on Long Island.

She is the editor of a blog about organizing, Never Neutral.

Fighting back

A native of Stony Brook, Long Island, Obernauer is a graduate of Stony Brook University and attended Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana Xochimilco in Chiapas, Mexico. She has written about labor, immigrant issues and politics for the Huffington Post and Living Out Magazine. She lives in Queens.

Shufro was one of a group of activists who helped found NYCOSH in 1978. “Joel took the idea of fighting back and giving workers a voice and made it real. If it wasn’t for his passion and commitment, that wouldn’t have happened, and there wouldn’t be a NYCOSH,” Clarke said.

Under Shufro’s leadership, NYCOSH has grown to have a staff of 11 and a membership of about 200 local unions and 300 individuals. It provides hundreds of hours a year of safety and health training to workers, offers expert advice on workplace safety and advocates for worker protections.

Here is a excerpt from a writing piece Obernauer had published in the Huffington Post in August 30, 2013, title, “From Wendy's to Walmart: Workers Fight for Our Future”

All across the country, workers from Wendy's to Walmart are protesting for better working conditions. Most recently, U.S. workers took part in a nationwide strike at fast food restaurants in 60 cities. Their demands were simple: increase wages to $15 an hour, protect the right to unionize, and respect workers on the job.

During the recession, 21% of jobs lost were low-paying jobs, but now 58% of jobs created are low-wage. In the new economy, workers get off of unemployment and into jobs making $7.25 an hour. In fact, 40% of workers in the U.S. earning less than $10 an hour have some college or a college degree. Many workers have student loans to pay off--27% have children and just 16% are teens -- on salaries of as low as $11,000 a year.

For many, the movement is just beginning. Membership of OUR Walmart, the group organizing workers at Walmart, has increased by 25% since protests on Black Friday. Fast food strikers grew from 200 to thousands, from one city to sixty, in just nine months.

Each worker protest seems to raise the bar for the next. Membership is growing, protests are getting bigger, and low-wage workers are joining together. From Wendy's to Walmart, workers are becoming more and more courageous and are willing to put their jobs on the line to earn better wages.

The question now isn't if the workers will give up, but if they will succeed, and how far they will go to win what they deserve.