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Unions put on show of pride and unity

If the sun and warmth weren’t enough to brighten the atmosphere on the 121st annual Labor Day, the mood of organized labor on Monday certainly added its own shine.

Hundreds of unionized workers, family members and supporters – as well as notable politicians and candidates – took to the streets of South Buffalo with pride and gusto to demonstrate the strength of Western New York’s labor movement.

Under clear blue skies, workers from across industries and throughout the region marched in the city’s annual Labor Day Parade, accompanied by cheers and whistles along their route down Abbott Road, through the city’s blue-collar heart, before veering onto Cazenovia Street and then heading down Warren Spahn Way into Cazenovia Park.

“I think it’s important on Labor Day to understand that unions are important, and that we wouldn’t be here on a weekend enjoying ourselves if it weren’t for unions that were started many years ago,” said Dave Dimillo, a 58-year-old day-care inspector for the state Office of Children and Family Services, and a member of the Public Employees Federation Region 1.

From construction and manufacturing trades to teachers, nurses and government employees, participants exuded unity, confidence, and excitement – despite some notable contract battles, one strike and an ongoing lockout that some workers are battling.

“The mood is upbeat, and the parade is as big as any we’ve ever had,” said Richard Lipsitz Jr., president of the Western New York Area Labor Federation. “And I think it reflects the rebounding of the labor movement in our region and that’s completely tied to the expansion of the economy, to the better jobs that are here. We have unfinished business with all of that, and this is an indication that we’re serious about that unfinished business.”

Besides the various unions represented in Monday’s parade, marchers also included West Side activist group PUSH Buffalo, the Working Families Party, and supporters of various political candidates, such as presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, who is running one of the strongest pro-labor campaigns. At least one piece of construction equipment and a firetruck with lights flashing also participated.

“I think that events like this, where we can get together in solidarity and stick together, bring a good helping of morale,” said Judy Knight, a payroll specialist at Erie Community College and a member of the Civil Service Employees Association, Local 815. “I believe that we are on the comeback, and I also believe it’s very difficult to get contracts settled, but we do what we can.”

As Americans fired up their barbecues for one last round of hamburger and hotdogs before summer ends, U.S. workers generally are celebrating a period of job growth and new achievements for organized labor, with increased numbers, higher wages and more protections.

Nationwide, there are more than 157 million workers 16 and older in the nation’s labor force, and 16.2 million were represented by a union in 2014, according to federal statistics. New York state has the highest concentration of any state in the country, with nearly a quarter of the workforce in a union.

Western New York in particular has long been an epicenter of organized labor, especially with its long tradition of heavy manufacturing, car-making and steel production, where large workforces yielded equally powerful unions. Those larger industries and companies have largely disappeared, but the city remains one of the nation’s most heavily concentrated bastions of union strength. And this year could be the best for job growth locally since 1989.

“The mood is very positive,” said Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown. “There’s a great deal of enthusiasm in this community on the part of all people and certainly on the part of labor because they are helping to rebuild Buffalo.”

Today, organized labor still represents 22 percent of the workforce in Western New York, with more than 145,000 members in 165 different unions. The region is among the top 10 in the country for the percentage of union labor, and among the top 20 for raw number of organized workers, Lipsitz said.

Former Erie County Legislator Bob Reynolds, who was a member of both the United Auto Workers from his carmaking days and CSEA from his later job at the Board of Elections, now handles orientation for new workers at the Ford Stamping Plant. he said he has seen a new respect and appreciation for the job that unions do in representing their members.

“We have a lot of young members active now in the union, and it’s nice to see that,” he said. “In order for unions to move forward, they have to get the young people engaged.”

Workers also are also benefiting from new legislation, executive orders, administrative rulings and law enforcement actions – on both the federal and state level, particularly in New York state. And both city and county officials are seeking to ensure fair treatment for all workers and to institute new hiring and contractor requirements that mandate more participation by women and minorities.

“People used to say labor and unions would hurt our development. Well, they’re a key role in the future of this community,” Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said. “They’re actively working on many of the most important projects that matter for the future of Buffalo, Erie County and Western New York. It just shows that, working together, we all have a role.”

On Monday, workers talked of a stronger spirit of cooperation, support and participation, leveraging strength to accomplish their goals.

That’s not to say everything is rosy, of course. Michael Henderson of Niagara Falls is among 44 members of United Steelworkers of America who are still locked out at Allegheny Technologies Inc.’s plant in Lockport after their contract expired and talks broke down.

“There’s an assault on labor now, where they’re trying to take away a lot of the benefits that we fought hard to get for the workers,” said Henderson, 59. “They’re trying to hurt the middle class ... but we’re going to be as strong as we need to be to keep what we have.”

email: jepstein@buffnews.com