Every day unions fight tirelessly for workers. What happens when unions and employers fight together to save lives. In 2022, a contract provision for blood, platelet and organ donation leave was included in the Niskayuna Local 1130 contract. The moment it passed – marked by a simple but poignant gathering in Niskayuna, NY – wasn’t huge, but the impact it will have is life-changing. Few people know this better than Alex Catello, LRS, AFSCME Council 66.
In 2003, Alex was diagnosed with IgA nephropathy, a slow degeneration of the kidneys, also known as “the silent killer”. In 2012, Alex was placed on a transplant list, but by 2016, kidney dialysis was his only remaining treatment option. As a husband and father of 3, he was understandably scared when he heard the news. He went to dialysis four days a week experiencing extreme fatigue until he could no longer work. Despite an awareness fundraiser hosted by NPMHU 309 – where multiple union members tested for donor compatibility – Alex still had no match. That was until Maggie Lanahan came forward. Maggie, a fellow union member, had quietly been tested for donor compatibility and found she was a match for Alex. She told Alex she wanted to donate her kidney to him, and she had plenty of good reasons to do so – chief among them was to honor her sister who had died of kidney cancer.
Thankfully, the Post Office has long been a provider of time off for employees for organ donation. This meant that Maggie could take time off for surgery without the risk of losing any pay. On May 15, 2017, the transplant surgery took place and it was a phenomenal success. Two days after his surgery – on his birthday – Alex’ daughter visited him at the hospital dressed up for her school semi-formal. It was a moment he won’t forget.
Alex retired from the Post Office in 2017 and came to work for AFSCME in 2020. He’s had so many extraordinary moments since his surgery – from working in a job he loves to seeing his children graduate high school and watching his first grandchild growing up – all because of the generosity of a kidney donor.
Kevin Pomery is a truck driver and the President of Local 1130 Town of Niskayuna. He has worked for the town for 14 years and loves what he does. “I take any chance I can to help people,” he says. “In helping others, we all get stronger.”
Like Alex, Kevin had a life-altering experience that left him needing the help of others to survive. When he was just in the 3rd grade, Kevin suffered a sledding accident that left him unresponsive. “We were having a great time sledding, when suddenly my sled collided with another and I hit my head so hard that I was immediately out.” At the scene, Kevin’s brother was terrified that this brother had died right there. Kevin was rushed to the hospital where he underwent multiple surgeries and required numerous blood transfusions to save his life.
It’s still difficult for Kevin’s family to talk about that day. He sustained some lifelong injuries from the accident and has worried in the past about his ability to be successful. Today, he is a union president who beams with pride about the work he and his team are accomplishing together.
Recently, members gave Kevin an ovation for all of his great work on their behalf. Kevin stays grateful and humble, though. “Every day I do something to better members’ lives because someone gave a gift that saved mine.”
Town Supervisor of Niskayuna, Jaime Puccioni, has been a lifelong union member and supporter. She’s witnessed first-hand the power of organ donation, as it saved the life of her dear family friend, Mark Pietrok. Mark is alive today thanks to a kidney donation.
Puccioni first met Mark Pietrok when she & her husband Marcus were studying at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon. Mark was their athletic trainer and soon they all became fast friends. In the years to come, Mark fell ill and was in need of dialysis to survive – until his brother stepped in to donate his kidney to save Mark’s life. It was a remarkable act of selflessness that Jaime will never forget.
“It’s this amazing circle of life,” she says. “I’ve witnessed my friend being able to live a great life because someone stepped up to help him in the most profound way at the most life-saving moment.” Mark’s brother gave him a kidney and now Mark is able to give so much back to his family and his community.” Today, Mark is the Director of Physical Education and Athletics at Lewis and Clark College and he has stayed lifelong friends with Jaime and Marcus. As the circle of life continues, today, Jaime and Marcus’ son is a passionate blood donor.
AFSCME Council 66 Communications Director, Maria Fisher, grew up in a family that was rescued by American soldiers from a Nazi slave labor camp and welcomed to the U.S. as refugees. Maria’s grandmother would always remind her that she was only alive because of the generosity and compassion of the American people. This gift of life was ever-present on Maria’s mind as she looked for ways to pay back all that she had been given.
Then, in 2018, while Maria was scrolling through Facebook, she saw a post from a woman whose husband was very ill and needed a kidney. Something about the post resonated with Maria. She spent the weekend praying about it and the following Monday she decided she would undergo testing to be a donor. Maria underwent the extensive process of donor compatibility testing and wound up being a perfect match. When she approached her boss at the RGVALF-AFLCIO about potentially being an organ donor, he immediately responded that he would do anything to support her and guaranteed she would not lose a day of pay in the process.
Maria underwent kidney donation surgery on July 25, 2018. Her kidney recipient grew healthier right away. When Maria struggled post-surgery with health issues, it was her fellow union members who stepped up to help her. They fed her, helped her walk, sat quietly next to her for hours as she endured tremendous pain, all to let her know that she was not alone. She had given to save someone else’s life and now her union siblings were there to help improve her life.
On April 12, 2023 Maria was recognized by New York State Assemblymember Sarah Clark and Town of Brighton Supervisor for her life saving gift and for promoting organ donation in the community.
Because of his own life saving experiences, Alex Catello is passionate about including a provision in union contracts that features time off for blood, platelet and organ donation. Alex worked with Kevin to bring this idea to the Niskayuna Supervisor, Jaime Puccione. When Alex and Kevin approached her about including an organ, platelet and blood donation provision in the contract, Puccioni said it was a “no-brainer”. The contract passed in 2022 and is likely the first local union contract in New York State to include time off for blood, platelet and organ donation. Following Niskayuna’s lead, Plattsburgh Library Workers ratified their contract including a blood, platelet and organ donation provision on November 9, 2022. Through AFSCME Council 66’s advocacy more union contracts are sure to follow..
Unions advocate for the workplace conditions that donors and recipients need.
By midnight tonight, over 20 people, across this nation, will have died waiting for a needed organ. Please donate life. #donatelife
April is National Donate Life Month. National Donate Life Month – Donate Life America