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Longtime local labor leader Bruce Popper has died

Longtime local labor leader and former Vice President of 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.
Mark Chamberlin
CITY Magazine
Longtime local labor leader and former Vice President of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.

A longtime area labor leader has died. Bruce Popper, who was a leader of what is now 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, before he retired a few years ago, died on Wednesday at the age of 71 at Strong Memorial Hospital after a lengthy illness.

Popper’s history with 1199, which represents about 2,600 health care workers in the Rochester area, and approximately 15,000 employees spread across Upstate NY, dates back to the late 1970s when he was hired as an organizer.

After Popper retired as Vice President of 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, Tracey Harrison was named to that position.

Harrison said that Popper “was always focused on ensuring that workers’ rights were protected.” He said that Popper was an excellent negotiator during contract talks, but said he was always focused on his members.

“How to improve their lives. So whether it was proper health insurance, being able to retire with dignity and respect, pension plans, education opportunities, childcare funds, you name it. Anything that he felt or had seen just from over the years in his research that had an impact on workers, he tried to remove any type of barriers,” said Harrison.

Assemblymember Harry Bronson (D-138), knew Popper well, and talked about him being extremely intelligent, but also very direct when discussing workers’ rights.

Bronson remembered a discussion among local anti-poverty advocates, when Popper distilled the argument being made very concisely.

“So for Bruce, when we were discussing how to address poverty and end poverty for our families, he said, ‘This is simple folks. If you want to end poverty, you have to pay them more so that they can provide for their families.’”

Bronson also said that Popper, “strongly believed that the labor movement was about social justice and fairness.” He said that, “everything (Popper) did was about workers’ rights, but it was bigger than that, it was about social justice.”

Assemblymember Demond Meeks (D-137), who previously worked as an organizer at Local 1199, said that, "While my heart is heavy with the passing of my labor brother, mentor, and friend Bruce Popper, I am truly grateful for the many life lessons I gained from him.” He praised Popper for taking a stand on social justice issues.

Funeral arrangements for Bruce Popper are pending.

Randy Gorbman is WXXI's director of news and public affairs. Randy manages the day-to-day operations of WXXI News on radio, television, and online.