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"When I first saw them, I caught my breath -- we all did, gasping as we edged single file onto the bridge. Men walked among these leviathans. Men stood at the switchboards, checked the gauges, adjusted the levers, calmly controlling and directing the machines that rose around them. Bands of color from the stained-glass transoms colored the men's faces blue and red."

-- The Niagara Falls powerhouse, described in "City of Light" by Lauren Belfer

The next time you stroll past Buffalo City Hall and see President Grover Cleveland's statue, fall to your knees and give a silent prayer of thanks to the patron-saint of the working man for your day off on Monday. Over a century ago, the former Buffalo mayor signed the bill that made Labor Day a legal holiday. He came from an era when Christmas was the worker's only holiday.

Here in Western New York, it's apt that a Buffalo-based government official freed you from your desk today, since most of the top employers are in the public sector.

Our automotive industry leads the private sector in handing out pay checks that aren't based in taxes, and best represents traditional labor in Buffalo.

And even that's changing. Jobs in Buffalo have always been marked by upheaval, and that will continue in the new millennium, as a view of Buffalo at work in the last century indicates. We took a look at a century's worth of working-class heroes, who helped set the dream through spine-busting labor, some latter day post-industrial inheritors, their jobs and the pay they received. Comparisons are surprising.

"Technology is forcing a change," warns Kevin Donovan, area director of Western New York United Auto Workers. "It's going to be a different workforce, requiring educated employees who work with more than their backs, arms and hands."

Old Grover Cleveland would certainly be impressed with their boost in pay, as Buffalo's first autoworkers, laboring for the early plants, started out at 40 cents an hour.

Working conditions have improved even since the early '70s, when a 19-year-old Kevin Donovan first walked into Tonawanda's General Motors Foundry.

"It was dark, dirty, you couldn't see down the aisle," he recalls "And extremely loud."

He was paid $4.75 an hour for his press operator job. Today press operators make about $20 an hour. They may put in more hours, but in a cleaner, safer environment.

"Those are cost-of-living increases," stresses Donovan, who also discusses housing costincreases from the '50s, when Western New York autoworkers lived comfortably on $1.90 an hour.

Women at work

When Natalie Bell, 45, of Hamburg left a hospital job for $5.75 an hour at the Ford plant in 1976, she wondered, "Uh-oh, what have I gotten myself into!?

"But those aches and pains went away with the first paycheck," she remembers. "I've proven to myself that I can do hard labor."

More women look to traditionally male blue-collar occupations for higher wages, notes Dr. Trudi C. Ferguson of the National Training Laboratories of the Western Behavioral Science Institute. Still, not many people realize how tough these jobs really are, Donovan says, pointing to "the dangers and the monotony."

The good news is that unemployment in the Buffalo area fell from last year, to 5.6 percent, compared with 7.1 percent.

"We are in relatively good times," comments George Smyntek, Buffalo area regional economist for the state Department of Labor.

Other top employers in the area putting tens of thousands of Western New Yorkers to work: New York State, the U.S. government, Erie County and Buffalo City Schools. A University at Buffalo professor, hired in the '60s for a four-figure salary, might make six figures by the time of retirement.

Professor Lillian Serece Williams, who will speak at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society at 3 p.m. next Sunday, (Sept.12)knows too well how the lot of Western New York workers has improved, especially for minority women like herself.

"By 1925, Buffalo industries had begun to employ black women in greater numbers, although there were still very few black females in the local plants and none in the major ones. Here, too, they performed domestic types of jobs," notes Dr. Williams, director of the Institute for Research on Women at the State University at Albany.

Back then a "domestic" might earn $8 a week, reveals the Niagara Falls native in her study, "Strangers in the Land of Paradise." The few women lucky enough to get factory work earned a minimum of $11.50 per week. This was an era when the New York State Factory Investigating Commission fixed the minimum wage by which a woman could maintain herself in "decency" at $15.55 a week in 1921 Buffalo.

Even having a good education didn't help. Dr. Williams tells of Beatrice Eve, a West Indian student at Bryn Mawr College, returning home to Buffalo in the summer of 1926, seeking a job in the garment industry, in which she had experience.

She had to get help from the YWCA, which received the response: "I've been in the sewing room for 20 years now and wouldn't want to take one (African American) on now." The "Y" initiated practices designed to "crystallize sentiment in favor of Negro girls."

They "hired two African Americans as clerks in the Central Association and lobbied in support of black women in the garment industry," Dr. Williams reports. "Consequently, some dress manufacturers hired several black women. The Y organized these young women into clubs to enhance their understanding of industrial problems and admitted them as members of the YWCA." While wages and opportunities increased over the decades, the YWCA in recent years has seen a upsurge in the demand for programs dealing with social concerns.

Jobs down the chute

"Manufacturing jobs have been hardest hit" in recent times, notes University at Buffalo sociologist Lois Weis in her study of over 150 Buffalo and Jersey City young men and women. "Real wages for the average American worker declined by almost 10 percent during the 1980s, and as a result, living standards have worsened for most workers and their families.

"At the same time, the income gap between the very rich and the average American worker has grown considerably larger," she adds in her study, "The Unknown City."

"Most American families, if they are fortunate enough to have employment at all, are having to work longer hours, or have more family members contribute to the family wage, just to keep family incomes from falling precipitously."

Service workers are not feeling the prosperity of today's reported economic bonanza. The average work year has increased by a month over the past 30 years, as the pay gap between executives and workers widens.

Sweat-glazed working men and women characterized Buffalo's industrial class heroes and martyrs until the '70s. Those of us educated in the '60s and before will remember wood-cut workers in heroic poses against a rising sun in our social-studies texts. More importantly, however, we remember the toll of metal lunch boxes sounding like a clock alarm, as they banged against kitchen doors as our parents left for work.

Most people lived two separate and distinct lives -- there was home, and there was work. At the factory, vulgar, muscle-grinding labor was punctuated by unpretentious nourishment: wax paper-covered sandwiches between 12 and 12:30. A well-paid union factory worker in the '50s made $5,000 a year, with a home costing $6,500. We, as children, knew and aspired to the dignity of these working-class heroes.

This was the American reality in the 19th and early 20th centuries, harnessing steam dynamos to drive the pulse of industry, and harnessing men to shovel coal into the ever-hungry, red-hot fire boxes that demanded coal as well as the dignity of working men and women. They ventured forth from lives on farms to indentured servitude, to run the steam shovels and steam gins that wove our clothes, fashioned our skyline and fought our wars.

The changing workplace

Before her job went to the Mexican border, Betty Miller of Tonawanda, in coveralls and asbestos gloves, lifted 20-pound zinc bars into 800-degree melting pots for 12 hours a day at Trico. After the Trico job exodus, Ms. Miller began a new career as a registered diet technician. That is today's reality.

When Buffalo was still the gateway from the Midwest to the East Coast, there were nearly 3,000 grain scoopers with iron shovels and guts of steel. They wielded their shovels for up to 20 hours a day for less than $5, ushering thousands of tons of golden grain into the towering elevators that pierce our blue-eyed skyline. Those were the days before the St. Lawrence Seaway. Today there are only about 50 scoopers left.

Buffalo's service sector made the biggest gain in jobs over the past decade, while thousands of manufacturing jobs were lost. Compare some 88,000 manufacturing jobs in Erie and Niagara counties to over a half-million service jobs.

In just one year, 1983, Bethlehem Steel cut almost 4,000 jobs.

While this area's job growth is still practically non-existent, following de-industrialization and the global job grab, employment has risen in social services and health agencies, schools, credit and collection agencies. Some employers look out-of-town for computer workers, complaining that local residents lack special skills, echoing Kevin Donovan's warning.

However, those who left the area with their college degrees often are willing to come back, says the state Labor Department's Smyntek, putting local businesses at an advantage.

Back to the future

Planning a teaching career in the early '80s, Deborah Lazarski of Kenmore knew jobs were difficult to get. She made herself more marketable by training in the bilingual field.

"Today it's much easier to get a teaching job, with the retirements," says Ms. Lazarski, who began at $16,500 for Buffalo City Schools. New teachers just out of college this September might be earning just under $29,000 a year.

Larry MacDonald of Tonawanda stands as one of the new entrepreneurs who may herald Western New York's economic future. He turned what could have been a personal job disaster into a work boom.

MacDonald went to work for a bag company right out of Kenmore High School and stayed for over three decades. His company changed ownership three times and then relocated to the South, with the idea that it would be cheaper to do business there.

MacDonald refused to move from Western New York, and with the support of his family, launched a houseboat tour company on the Erie Canal four years ago. It was the right decision, because less than a year after it moved South, his division was closed.

Buffalo's shipping and steel boom may be over, but visitors come from all over the country -- Oregon, Washington, Utah, California, Arizona, Tennessee, Michigan, Illinois, Florida, Georgia, and New England -- to vacation on MacDonald's Princess houseboats, which he builds himself in Western New York. HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo recently announced in Buffalo that communities will be sharing $31.1 million to boost the canal.

Working for the working class

In the next century, futurists say hot new jobs will focus on helping the "haves" keep what they do have. Perhaps you could call it a new spin on the "domestic." These young men and women will occupy jobs to care for ancient baby boomers, or they'll endlessly stare into New Age cathode-ray furnaces that promise to fire the next millennium.

"Community personal assistants will be hired by community groups and neighbors who will pool their resources," predicts Marian Salzman and Ira Matathia in the Futurist. "These neighborhood concierges will do things that homeowners no longer have time to do themselves, such as dropping off and picking up dry cleaning, going food shopping, doing yard work and pool maintenance and performing routine home repairs or overseeing the work of plumbers and other service providers. Services will be provided by homeowners' associations, with fees charged on a menu basis." Also look for businesses like "nutrition-on-wheels:"

"A growing number of companies will deliver an assortment of nutritious frozen meals to busy households. Modeled on old-fashioned ice-cream trucks, meal trucks will circle through neighborhoods at dinnertime each day to offer a selection of entrees and extras," envision Salzman and Matathia.

"The increase in home offices will escalate demand for on-site emergency computer diagnostics and repair." Also expect growth in alternative health careers, like acupuncturists, naturopaths, dietitians and dispensers of traditional Chinese medicines. It's back to the future, with homeopathic-medicine businesses, stores with nutriceuticals and "allergy stores" that carry foods made without ingredients like wheat, nuts and dairy products.

Another business they say to consider in our brave new world: rent-a-mutt.

"In our increasingly security-conscious world, we'll see the growth of a rental market for trained dogs: bomb-sniffing attack dogs for patrolling corporations, guard dogs for homeowners on vacation, 'security' dogs for women jogging alone or working late at night."

But some won't need that protection. Buffalo telecommuters in the information-based economy will cross national boundaries, as high-tech companies recruit worldwide on the Internet. That way you'll even surpass former Buffalo Mayor Grover Cleveland's fantasies. You'll get to spend every day at home, not just Labor Day.

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