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Buffalo's prosperity requires reformed labor laws

The City of Buffalo was once a manufacturing powerhouse, expanding its population from 353,000 to more than half a million in just 50 years. But in the 50 years that followed -- despite $4 billion spent in 2007 and another $1 billion in incentives just allocated by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo -- Buffalo's economy continues to struggle, and its population stands at almost half its apex.

As a labor lawyer at Bethlehem Steel, I often traveled to the Lackawanna steel plant to handle labor disputes. It was obvious that the local steelworkers union was making decisions that were not in the best interest of employees. Union members were bound by contracts that created paralyzing inefficiencies where even the most enlightened employees were given the option only to quit or go down with the ship.

This behavior, which is far from isolated, demonstrates that unions care far more about their own power and comfort than they do about growing the economy and giving workers control over their own destiny. Labor reform is gaining ground across the rust belt, from Indiana to Minnesota, and Buffalo is a testament to the reason why.

When it comes to reforming our nation's labor laws, there's no better place to start than the Employee Rights Act (ERA), a new bill introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C. The legislation increases accountability for union leaders, strengthens employee control over dues and puts an end to workplace intimidation and coercion.

Today, more than 90 percent of private-sector union members are represented by unions they never voted for, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It's common sense that union members should have the same voice in choosing their representation as the rest of us do in a democracy.

Currently, union bosses use employees like cash cows to bankroll politicians who make sure federal labor laws keep the gravy train running, and on time. The result? Less take-home pay, less productivity, and more waste and corruption. Under the ERA, unions would have to secure member approval before spending a dime of their paychecks for the benefit of specific candidates or political parties.

With the right pro-growth policies in place, Buffalo has the potential to rebound dramatically. But without a comprehensive reform of our labor laws, even the best-intended measures will disappoint as they have in the past. To turn the corner once and for all, power must be put back in the hands of employees -- where it belongs.

That's why the Employee Rights Act is all about employee rights versus union power, not big business versus big labor. With so much on the line, that's a message Buffalo can help send loud and clear to the politicians in Albany, and beyond.


Rick Berman is executive director of the Center for Union Facts. To learn more about the ERA, visit