George L. Wessel, who walked picket lines, fought political battles and took on big business in his 27 years as president of the Buffalo AFL-CIO Council, is dead.
Wessel, 74, of Lancaster, died Saturday (Dec. 27, 1997) in Buffalo General Hospital. He suffered from heart ailments in recent months.
"Basically, he started out as a simple working man who wasn't afraid to stand up for himself and other workers. And he wound up in a position where he got to know presidents, governors, mayors -- all kinds of important people," said Mary Wessel, his wife of 50 years.
"Some people didn't like George, but they always knew where he stood on every issue," she said. "He stood up for his people, and he didn't mince words."
Even at the end, the feisty Wessel did things his way, his wife said.
"He went into the hospital on December 13, and he insisted on coming home for Christmas," Mrs. Wessel said. "The hospital did not approve of it, but George told them he was going home for Christmas. He did spend the day at home, but he took a turn for the worse after that.
"That was George -- he was coming home for Christmas, and that was it."
Wessel was head of the local AFL-CIO Council, which has as many as 100,000 members, for nine three-year terms before retiring last year. He also held a wide range of government, political and civic posts, including 20 years as a commissioner of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.
Born and raised on Buffalo's East Side in a family of 10 children, Wessel graduated from Burgard Vocational High School. A printer by trade, he worked at the old Remington Rand printing plant in North Tonawanda before enlisting in the Navy, serving as a Seabee during World War II.
After the war, he became a union steward at Remington Rand and eventually became business agent of the Printing Pressman Local 27.
Wessel was appointed head of the Buffalo AFL-CIO in 1968 to fill out the term of then-president James L. Kane, who became a City Court judge.
In his years as president, Wessel became a vocal supporter of workers' rights and a political activist in the Democratic Party. His outspoken nature, his political ties and union activities sometimes put him in controversy.
Wessel told reporters that he did not mind being called the "labor boss" of Western New York, and he was quick to admit over the years that he had a short fuse that sometimes got him into trouble.
In May 1994, the Democratic Party denied him access to its state convention in Buffalo. The angry Wessel said the action was the party's response to his support of Buffalo firefighters who planned to picket the convention in protest of a plan to close four city firehouses.
Wessel said at the time that the party was not going to stop him from joining firefighters on the picket line.
"I don't hold grudges, but I do get teed off," Wessel said.
His feisty nature showed itself earlier during a December 1987 meeting of the NFTA. The commissioners were holding a civil discussion about wind conditions in the downtown Metro Rail stations when Wessel sounded off.
He challenged every NFTA commissioner to stand in one of the stations during subzero weather and accused the station designers of getting their engineering licenses "from a Cracker Jack box."
When asked last year about his accomplishments with the union council, Wessel listed his efforts to promote solidarity within the area's fractured labor community, the creation of a workers' memorial in Chestnut Ridge Park to honor workers who died on their jobs, and his advocacy of labor issues in the power circles of Buffalo and Erie County.
Joseph F. Crangle, a respected Buffalo attorney and former longtime chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party, said late Saturday on hearing of Wessel's death:
"The people in the middle class today that own their homes and are able to send their kids to college owe a lot to the George Wessels of this country who pioneered and fought for their rights and a fair share for working people.
"He worked hard for the labor movement and the Democratic Party, to improve the quality of life for everybody. He'll be greatly missed."
He was also proud of having been an NFTA commissioner while the authority was building its Metro Rail line and expanding the airport.
Wessel was involved in many government, civic and community organizations, including: Erie County Industrial Development Agency, Health Care Plan, the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County, Niagara Frontier Industry Education Council, American Red Cross, New York State Jobs Training Partnership, Buffalo-Erie County Labor-Management Council, Erie County Private Industry Council, Cornell University Labor Advisory Board and Western New York Public Broadcasting Association.
He was a member of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Bowmansville, and before that, of Infant of Prague Church in Cheektowaga, where he was former Holy Name president. An avid golfer, Wessel belonged to Transit Valley Country Club.
He and the former Mary McGurty celebrated their 50th anniversary in May. Besides his wife, Wessel is survived by a daughter, Mary C. Podlesak of Oakhurst, N.J.; a sister, Margaret Stock of Cheektowaga; and four grandchildren.
Memorial arrangements are being handled by Amigone Funeral Home, 8440 Main St., Clarence.