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Arthur Pepper is a funny guy.
That was clear during his acceptance speech after receiving the Charles Cogen Award, the UFT’s highest honor, at the Teacher Union Day celebration on Nov. 5 in the ballroom at the New York Hilton. The funny stories, one-liners and zingers kept coming, keeping the attendees in stitches.
But excuse those who employ UFT members if they failed to see his humor.
That’s because Pepper, the just-retired executive director of the UFT Welfare Fund, was dead serious whenever he got into a room with someone attempting to do harm to UFT members’ supplemental health benefits provided through the Welfare Fund.
“Every employer thinks they’re smarter than you,” Pepper said in a serious moment. “That’s the first premise you have to go on. Well, I have an unquestionable disregard for what they need and what they want, and an unwavering focus on what we need and what we want.”
So, when an employer would tell him during negotiations he had “a great idea,” Pepper would inevitably respond: “I don’t think so. But I have an idea that would really work.”
And that’s a big reason why UFT members have the comprehensive health benefits they enjoy today, according to UFT President Michael Mulgrew.
“The city has tried everything in its power to gut our health care program,” Mulgrew said before making the presentation to Pepper, who ran the Welfare Fund since 1995. “The city said over and over: ‘No one in the United States has free health care. Why should you?’”
And every time, Mulgrew said, Pepper stood fast against such talk.
“Artie told them we should have it because we already paid for it and we deserve it,” Mulgrew said.
Year after year, time and again, the UFT Welfare Fund faced challenges, be it threats to the health plans or keeping prescription drug costs under control, Mulgrew said.
“Yet we still have our health care without a premium,” Mulgrew said. “And we have the strongest drug plan because of the work of Artie Pepper.”
Mulgrew said Pepper, a former music teacher and UFT chapter leader in Queens, preferred to do his work in the shadows, refusing to take credit for the Welfare Fund’s solid footing and even originally being reluctant to accept the Cogen Award. The “ultimate Artie,” Mulgrew said, came just a few days before the event, when Pepper quietly retired with barely an announcement.
Geof Sorkin, who will replace Pepper as director of the Welfare Fund, said Pepper left it in great shape.
“Artie is meticulous in his planning, and his focus has always been on the individual members and their needs,” said Sorkin a former visual arts teacher at IS 259 in Brooklyn who began working full time for the Welfare Fund in 2010. “I’ve learned so many lessons from him about work but, more importantly, about life.”
Pepper credited people like former UFT presidents Sandy Feldman and Randi Weingarten, former staff director Tom Pappas and others, including Mulgrew, for “guiding me along the way. They are some of the top trade unionists in the country.”
Sorkin said there has always been “a feeling of security when Artie is in the office that no matter what we encounter, everything is going to be OK. We’re going to miss him, but I have him on speed dial.”
What is your favorite winter-themed children's story?
The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats
The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg
The Snow Queen, by Hans Christian Andersen
Owl Moon, by Jane Yolen
The Mitten, by Jan Brett
Total votes: 108