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AFL-CIO's Cilento wants to tap strength in numbers

The New York State AFL-CIO has more than 2.5 million members and 3,000 local unions.

But to its president, Mario Cilento, those big numbers mean little unless unions are coordinated and motivated about pressing issues.

"The numbers are great, but unless everyone is working off the same page and working out of the same playbook, the numbers don't really mean anything," Cilento said.

Cilento, 49, will be the featured speaker at Saturday's annual meeting of the Western New York Area Labor Federation in Amherst. The federation is an umbrella group that covers unions in a territory stretching as far east as Batavia and as far south as Jamestown.

Cilento lives in Rockland County and has been the state AFL-CIO president since 2011. He said he wants to build on momentum from the result of last year's statewide ballot proposition about whether to hold a constitutional convention.

Early polls showed a strong majority of voters in favor of holding such a convention, he said. But the labor movement vigorously campaigned against the idea. On Election Day, the proposition was soundly rejected, with 83 percent of ballots cast against it. Union members were even more emphatic, with 87 percent of them voting "no."

That kind of result "gets your members even more motivated for the next challenge," Cilento said. "Because now you've shown them if they do these things and they coordinate and they talk to each other and across sector — public sector, private sector and building trades — it really gets them ready for the next battle."

In practical terms, the New York State AFL-CIO will poll union members to identify issues that resonate across the state and different sectors, and hold focus groups to hone the messages, he said. Cilento sees organized labor's campaign against the constitutional convention as a model for that approach.

On a national level, union leaders are awaiting the Supreme Court's ruling on what is known as the Janus case, which was argued before the justices in February. At issue is whether public sector workers should have to pay fees to unions representing them, for services such as contract bargaining.

The outcome is now in the justices' hands. But Cilento said he feels organized labor is in a strong position in New York state either way.

"Regardless of the outcome, we'll be fine here, because we still have another one million members who are private sector and building trades [workers]," he said.

New York state added 75,000 union members last year, and 24 percent of its public and private sector workers were union members, which was twice the national average, according to federal figures.

Also at the labor federation's annual meeting, Richard Lipsitz Jr. is expected to be re-elected to a three-year term as the organization's president.

Lipsitz said local labor leaders are tracking issues like the pension dispute at Tops Markets, and contract negotiations at area employers, including at Wendt Corp., a Cheektowaga manufacturer.

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