Tyrék Lee's career as a labor boss began in perhaps the most unlikely way possible: When he was hired into his first union shop, as a telephone operator at Boston Medical Center in 2003, he initially refused to sign his union card.
He didn't come from a union household, and he didn't understand why he was being forced to join an organization — SEIU Local 1199 — and pay union dues whether he wanted to or not. Lee gave in only when he was told he'd lose the job, which he desperately needed, if he didn't do it.
What was once a confrontation has become an ironic anecdote, a story to tell. Lee has just risen to Local 1199's top job in the state, the first black male to lead a statewide union. He's executive vice president, replacing his mentor Veronica Turner, who has been kicked upstairs in the union hierarchy. Local 1199 represents 52,000 health care workers, and is notoriously dynamic politically.
Lee's rise through the union ranks has been uncommonly swift. He's won praise as a talented organizer and savvy negotiator, as well as an effective advocate for SEIU's left-leaning political agenda. Turner says she saw his potential immediately. They had a confrontation in his early days at BMC, while he was still unsure what a union did, or why he should care. Yet Turner was struck by his passion and charisma.
"Tyrék was anti-union," Turner said. "He didn't know much about the union. My first impression was that, if I could move him, he'd be a great leader."
Lee's path to adulthood was not easy. Born in Boston, he spent his early childhood in Cleveland being raised by his grandmother and great-grandmother. He moved back to Boston at 13 to live with his mother. But he drifted from school to school before dropping out. By 20, he was a father of three, and his job prospects were dim. He started working in hospitals mostly to pay mounting child support. He had no inkling that the union he never wanted to join would prove to be his lifeline.
But the notion of fighting for underpaid workers deeply resonated with him. So did working on a broader social-justice agenda. By the time he was dispatched to Pennsylvania in 2004 to work on John Kerry's presidential campaign — his first time away from home or staying in a hotel — he realized he had become a professional organizer.
He has no shortage of battles he hopes to wage. First is the fight for a $15 minimum wage. His team was successful in recently negotiating a $15 minimum wage from Boston Medical Center, and two other hospitals — Tufts and Beth Israel Deaconess — have quickly followed suit.
Yet to come: "The fight for $15 . . . Black Lives Matter, gender equity, immigration reform. All those are things our members care about."
It's not lost on Lee that union leadership in his state has never been distinguished by its diversity. In addition to his SEIU job, he holds office in the state AFL-CIO and the Greater Boston Labor Council, roles that allow him to push for greater diversity in the labor movement.
Not only is Lee the first to say his rise is unlikely, he revels in his story of an aimless young man who has found direction. He could easily have fallen by the wayside. Instead, his life is devoted to advocating for other people on the economic margins, struggling to survive.
"With hope, which I had, and people around me believing in me, which I had, I went from a telephone operator in 2003 to a vice president in 2010," Lee said. "I wouldn't say people should live this story, but for me, I don't know if I would change it."
His early challenges, he said, helped fuel his later success. "I wouldn't be here if some of those things didn't happen," he said, "because that's what motivated me."