How Hudson Valley unions have struggled to evolve
By Anne Pyburn Craig
National union leadership—eight-hundred-pound gorillas like the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the largest labor alliance in the US—endorsed Hillary Clinton early on, while a few—postal, transit and communications workers, nurses and healthcare workers, longshore and warehouse workers, and electrical, radio, and machine workers’ groups—went for Bernie Sanders, as did several handfuls of state, regional and local divisions of the larger unions. Three law-enforcement unions supported Trump
Meanwhile, a fair number of rank-and-file union members bucked the leadership and went for Trump—only to see his talk of a massive infrastructure bill and support for workers apparently dry up and blow away in the heat of conservative realpolitik.
Union influence in the United States has been in decline since the late 1970s. Once, around a third of private sector workers were union members. In 2013, that number was seven percent. The pinnacle of success for industrial unions may have been their victories in the New Deal of the 1930s; it didn’t take long at all for anti-union forces to lash back, partly by tainting all things union with the dreaded specter of “socialism”; and in Ronald Reagan, management found a powerful champion. Unions themselves may not have helped; they had long pursued a course of organizing the worker elite while leadership took a cut off the top, making them a handy target.
“I saw a situation where my boss was pressing federal charges against his second in command,” says Sandra Cuellar Oxford, representative for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 888. “They brokered a sweetheart deal, which included paying the character to shut up and get out of the labor movement. Some of the union bosses, their biggest struggle is whether to pay for lunch with the gold card or the black card.”
Those types stain a movement that may yet represent one of the strongest forces for social justice, one with a long, often honorable history here in New York. The first recorded strike, in 1768, happened when the journeymen tailors of New York faced a pay cut. Today, both city and state have the highest rates of union membership in the United States. New York City was the birthplace of the fight for a $15 minimum wage. Governor Andrew Cuomo—despite promising as a candidate in 2010 to reduce the influence of unions, and having a lingering reputation as a union-buster—won a long list of labor endorsements in 2014 and has made union dues fully deductible in his 2017 budget.
In the Hudson Valley, one of the biggest midcentury private employers was IBM, whose founding CEO Thomas Watson believed that paid leave and living wages were essential to a company’s success. As recently as 1984, that meant over 30,000 residents of Ulster and Dutchess counties had no perceived need for collective bargaining rights, much less strikes. Those jobs are long gone, and the tourism and hospitality economy that has fueled something of an economic recovery has simultaneously pushed the cost of living up as locals find themselves competing for housing with enthusiastic transplants. Many small businesses don’t lend themselves to organized labor; the better ones have their own versions of Watson’s workers-are-human philosophy, while others… don’t.
A 2016 report from the Center for Housing Solutions and Urban Initiatives at Pattern for Progress cites grim statistics. In Dutchess County, a two-bedroom apartment is affordable on an hourly wage of $24.44, while the mean renter’s wage rate is $12.53. In Ulster, the “fair market rent” on a two-bedroom was $1,146 in 2016; for a mean wage earner, “affordable” is $482. Even the comparatively wealthier folks in the counties closer to the city are feeling the squeeze.
“We’re trying to help middle-class people stay middle-class,” says Sam Fratto, business manager for Local 363 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “Way back, if you made $50,000 a year you were fine; today, I doubt you could buy a house. Companies will say ‘benefits available’ and in the fine print, it’s $800 a month. Hey, a gold-plated Mercedes is ‘available.’”
Around the turn of the millennium, a regrouping took place; the Hudson Valley Area Labor Federation AFL-CIO, which counts 113,000 “union families” in the region as members, was founded in 2001 to represent the interests of workers in a seven-county region through the efforts of four central labor councils that bring together a wide variety of local union chapters.
The goal is “to lay the foundations for a more visible and bold labor movement that reflects the hopes and dreams of working families in the Hudson Valley.” Meanwhile, Farmworkers’ Legal Services and the Workers’ Rights Law Center have merged to form the Worker Justice Center, advocating for the human rights of the lowest-paid sectors left behind by old-school unions.
“Many of the older factory unions are gone,” says Sparrow Tobin, a teacher and president of the Hudson/Catskill labor council of the HVALF. “Now we have the private sector unions like the CWA (Communications Workers of America) and the public sector, teachers and civil servants. We, and the building trades, are the largest segments. Local 1199 (Service Employees International Union) is trying to organize the fast food workers. UFCW is trying to organize Wal-Mart. It’s tough going, but the Fight for 15 helped.”
Oxford says the Fight for 15 raised awareness but didn’t do much for locals. “The result was good for eight counties—basically the five boroughs, Long Island, and Westchester,” she says. “Up here, we’re still wondering what was in it for us. Then, too, if you’re in the service industries and you’re already making close to $15 after being there for ten years, you’re wondering what’s in it for you even if it did apply up here. There’s a mythology that the cost of living is much cheaper up here, but that fails to consider subsidies that city people take for granted like public transit—trying to get around here without a car is impossible—and better housing regulation. And God help you if you’re married to a mortgage. The whole analysis needs to go deeper, the whole effort needs to be tweaked; which is what organized labor and social justice are supposed to be about.”
There’s currently a call for a state constitutional convention; advocates fear that New York’s relatively strong labor protections may be revoked in the name of cost savings. Benefits, everyone agrees, are costly; they’re also essential. “Some of the people cheering when laws are changed that affect unions don’t realize that worker protections—safety regulations, overtime laws—impact all workers, not just union members,” says Fratto. “Non-union workers may not realize that they share in the right to withhold labor and go on strike. We’re everywhere, yet often unseen; when they talk about us we’re ‘big labor’ with one breath and ‘a small minority of American workers’ with the next. And the swing vote on the national labor board is now a guy whose job was to help companies keep unions out. Workers have been getting snowed for 40 years. My fear is for our children, our grandchildren. Assuming it isn’t outlawed, one day they are going to have to get together again, because no one else is looking out for them.”