Longtime labor leader and Orange County Employees Association general manager Nick Berardino was honored by Mayor Miguel Pulido at a Santa Ana City Council meeting Tuesday evening.

Berardino, who is retiring in August, received an Exceptional Citizen Award for his leadership of OCEA, which is headquartered in Santa Ana and is a funder of Voice of OC.

Pulido spoke warmly of Berardino, who was hired at the union in 1978 and has been general manager since 2002.

OCEA represents 18,000 public employees across the county.

“Throughout his long and successful term, Berardino has established himself as a champion for the working people, particularly for the working poor,” Pulido said. “I believe he’s making Orange County a better place.”

Berardino thanked the mayor and city council for their service.

“People don’t know the kind of selflessness it takes…to be a city councilmember,” Berardino said. “All you have to do in this community — balancing policing and schools and libraries — it takes so much dedication.”

“I apologize for all the negative things I’ve ever said — until the next election,” he added jokingly.

After his retirement, Berardino says he will continue advising OCEA but wants to focus on “social justice issues,” like economic inequality, and veterans’ issues.

“I think the entire county is at a point of economic apartheid – so we need to be aggressive…about jobs and building a real safety net,” Berardino said.

He is optimistic about the future of the county’s labor movement.

Berardino’s protege, Jennifer Muir, who is now OCEA’s assistant general manager, will take over as general manager.

“I’m not worried. I think putting this movement in the hands of young, committed people will be a whole new growth experience,” he said.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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