Oliver Gray, long-time associate director of District Council 37, died June 29 at Beth Israel Hospital from complications resulting from a heart attack he had 72 hours earlier at his Manhattan home, according to Henry Garrido, the union's executive director. He was 79 years old.

“The labor movement has lost a quiet giant,” Mr. Garrido said in a phone interview. “He was incredibly calm in times of crisis."

'A Passionate Advocate'

AFL-CIO New York City Central Labor Council President Vincent Alvarez said in a statement, “Oliver was a tireless and passionate advocate for public employees and for working families across New York City for nearly two decades, and his dedication to his work, like so many of the workers he fought for, contributed deeply to the fabric of our city."

“Oliver believed deeply in the value of DC 37 members to New York City and in fighting for that value to be recognized,” wrote Debbie Bell, a former top negotiator for the union who recently retired as executive director of the Professional Staff Congress.

Mr. Gray was appointed in 1983 by Mayor Ed Koch to be his special adviser on race relations, immigration and public education. The Mayor recruited him from the Health and Hospitals Corporation, where he had been an Assistant Vice President handling community and patient relations.

George Arzt, who served as Mayor Koch’s Press Secretary during his third term, remembered Mr. Gray as the administration’s liaison to municipal unions.

“He was such a gentleman and one of the funniest people I knew," the political consultant recalled during a phone interview. “It was great when you were thinking the world was coming to an end: this guy could crack a joke…He was always a background person who gave very sound advice to key people."

Came to Union Post-Scandal

Mr. Gray joined DC 37 in 2003 at the invitation of Lillian Roberts, who became executive director in the aftermath of a massive corruption scandal that ensnared the leadership of 44 of its 56 locals and included the fixing of a 1996 wage-contract vote.

Arthur Cheliotes, at the time the president of Communications Workers of America Local 1180, recalled, “They went through a tough time and it was very important to have someone to get things under control, and he was that guy doing the stuff you don’t see to run an organization serving 125,000 people.”

City Councilman Daneek Miller recalled him as "a brilliant labor mind. He did what we all wish we could do—be able to manage how you lead.”

The head of the Council Civil Service and Labor Committee continued, “It is difficult in this moment to be impactful and also graceful, and not be that front-line person with the bullhorn in your hand.”

But as Mr. Cheliotes recalled, when required, Mr. Gray had the rhetorical chops to fill in if Ms. Roberts had a scheduling conflict.

Lit Into Bloomberg

That was demonstrated during a June 2011 union rally on the steps of City Hall to protest cutbacks by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.   

“This man thinks he is going to start laying people off and we are all going to panic and start running,” said a defiant Mr. Gray. “I guarantee you before this is over, he is going to be crying more than we will. We are not going to run and hide, and we are not going to beg for his forgiveness.”

At the time, DC 37 had documented that even as the Bloomberg administration pushed for Teacher and support-staff layoffs, it had $800 million in uncollected taxes and fees. “They could go out and collect it, but they chose not to do it,” Mr. Gray told the energized crowd. “They chose to come after the little people and to lay them off.”

Joe Puleo, president of DC 37 Local 983, called Mr. Gray a mentor who always made himself available.

“It is a great loss,” Mr. Puleo said. “He was for the movement, and that was paramount to him.”

Ideals Forged as Youth 

Mr. Gray grew up in New Haven and Hartford, Conn., and graduated from Hampton University. He got a master's degree in urban planning from Hunter College.

His DC 37 colleagues said he often spoke of growing up in a struggling neighborhood of color when emphasizing the importance of education in advancing labor's broader social agenda.

He was a skilled photographer, and his son, Nkosi Gray-El, said in a phone interview that "he was a huge collector of jazz vinyl records and rare African-American books."

He is also survived by a granddaughter. 

“He was happy to help, push, fight and demand, but his name never had to be part of the discussion and that’s a rare quality,” Mr. Garrido said. “Our union family is in mourning."

A memorial service will be held Sunday, July 12 from 2-4 p.m. at Bentas Funeral Home, 630 St. Nicholas Ave. in Harlem. 

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