Next Score View the next score

    Jon Kest, 57; organized low-wage workers in New York

    Jon Kest helped organize home day-care workers.
    Jon Kest helped organize home day-care workers.

    NEW YORK — Jon Kest, a founder of the Working Families Party and a longtime community advocate in New York, who organized the recent strike by the city’s fast-food workers, among many other initiatives, died Wednesday at his home in Brooklyn. He was 57.

    The cause was cancer, his brother, Steven, said.

    Mr. Kest began organizing more than 30 years ago and was considered a gentle but tenacious thorn in the side of a string of mayors: Edward I. Koch, David N. Dinkins, Rudolph W. Giuliani, and Michael R. Bloomberg.


    He sought in particular to improve conditions for the city’s often unseen stratum of low-wage workers: the men and women who wash the cars, bag the groceries, and mind the children of better-off residents.

    Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
    The day's top stories delivered every morning.
    Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

    At his death, Mr. Kest was the executive director of New York Communities for Change, an organization based in Brooklyn that advocates on behalf of poor and working-class New Yorkers on issues like wages, housing, and education.

    On Nov. 29, about 200 of New York’s fast-food workers — in restaurants including McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, and Domino’s Pizza — took part in a one-day strike, demanding equitable pay and the right to unionize.

    The strike, the brainchild of Mr. Kest, was described by The Times as ‘‘the biggest wave of job actions in the history of America’s fast-food industry.’’

    Mr. Kest was previously the head organizer of New York ACORN, the local chapter of the national nongovernmental organization. In 2010, after the national group’s demise amid allegations — some later discredited — of mismanagement and fiscal impropriety, Mr. Kest and colleagues founded New York Communities for Change.


    He helped found the Working Families Party, begun in 1998 by a consortium that included Acorn, labor unions, and other advocacy groups. The party seeks to advance a liberal agenda on a range of issues.

    Jonathan Lee Kest was born on June 17, 1955, in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and reared in White Plains. After studying at Oberlin College, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

    He began his organizing career soon afterward, setting up local chapters of ACORN in Arkansas. He later established ACORN’s Philadelphia chapter before moving to New York in the early 1980s.

    In New York, Mr. Kest organized a ‘‘squatting drive’’ in Brooklyn, in which neighborhood residents took over hundreds of apartments in abandoned buildings. As a result, the city agreed to convert the buildings into low-income housing.

    During the Giuliani mayoralty, Mr. Kest helped win better working conditions for members of the city’s workfare force — welfare recipients who, under the mayor’s widely publicized plan, were required to do menial work, including cleaning city parks, in order to receive their benefits.


    He also helped stop Giuliani’s plan to privatize the city’s public schools.

    About a decade ago, Mr. Kest conceived the drive to organize home day-care workers. Today, 17,000 of these workers belong to the United Federation of Teachers. More recently, Mr. Kest was involved in the continuing effort to unionize workers in the city’s car washes.