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Labor leader advocates for “high road” growth

With all the new developments unfolding in Western New York, Richard Lipsitz Jr. wants to ensure the benefits are widely shared.

Lipsitz, president of the Western New York Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, and the group’s executive board spelled out the organization’s priorities and objectives in a document called a “Blueprint for a New Region.” The blueprint, released ahead of the organization’s annual meeting in March, highlights developments including the planned Solar City plant, the University at Buffalo moving its medical school downtown, and investments at the area’s General Motors and Ford plants.

At the same time, the labor federation stresses protecting wages and safety conditions for working people, promoting good-paying jobs, and supporting workers whose industries will be affected by a shift toward cleaner sources of energy, a process known as “just transition.”

“Clearly put, we have our own independent thinking and plan of action to ensure that this prosperity works for the broad masses of the laboring people,” the document says.

Compared to many parts of the country, the Buffalo Niagara region has a relatively high unionized workforce – nearly 15 percent of private-sector workers were union members in 2013, according to research by The labor federation’s “blueprint” outlines the group’s push for “high road” economics that promote higher wages and benefits packages for workers.

Lipsitz, a 64-year-old Buffalo resident, says neither he nor his labor federation board are satisfied “just talking about things. We want to actually implement programs and policies that make a difference in people’s lives. This reflects a lot of that work.”

Q: Do you see examples of high-road economic growth here?

A: Solar City, if it even comes out to be 60 percent, 50 percent of what’s being talked about, this is enormous change for the economy. It’s not just there. There’s been expansion at the automobile plants. There are two industrial plants in the old Bethlehem site. There’s all this moving to the downtown corridor, especially to the medical corridor. We’re not done yet. You don’t get necessarily the $15 an hour jobs from all of it, but you don’t get $7.75 jobs, either. And you concentrate the economic activity in the core of the city, and that leads to residual economic development, which if it’s done right, actually leads to decent-paying jobs in the retail and service sector.

But then you see, too, things like technology development companies for medical research. They pay good money. That’s happening because of this concentration in one area, and it’s not a small area. By the time it’s finished, it’s not going to be as big as the Cleveland Clinic, but it’s not going to be that much smaller. On top of that, you have the revival of downtown.

All this is wonderful stuff. Our job is to make sure it just doesn’t stay at the level of all the money going to the top 1 percent. Of course, if you have good industrial development, with good-paying jobs, that doesn’t happen.

Q: What about the push to increase the minimum wage – how does that come into play?

A: There are four ways wages can be increased. One, it can be done through executive order, the president did it on federal contracts: you’ve got to pay $10.10 [per hour] or don’t bid on a contract.

Another way is that the legislature and then an executive in a given locale or state can increase it.

The third way is an employer on his own, her own, can just raise wages. The other way is to organize the union and negotiate collectively, because the minimum wage is what it is, and in most parts of the country, it’s way below what the president did with the $10.10, or what New York State is doing. And in some parts of the country, it’s absolutely at the minimum, in most of the country. So we’re trying to engage our society in looking at and then taking action to alleviate the poverty of millions of people. … We want more wages going into the pockets of the people who need it the most.

Q: Your group cautions against becoming “giddy with success.” What does that mean?

A: Giddy with success is, “Isn’t this wonderful, Buffalo looks new.” … It’s a different-looking city than it was. There’s more activity in certain parts. There’s more young people. It’s exciting all of a sudden. But let’s not get giddy with that. Getting giddy with it means forgetting about the fact that we also have to deal with the benefits to the community that isn’t necessarily directly included in this activity. And that is something a lot of people are talking about especially in the medical corridor and downtown.

I’m real excited about where Buffalo can go. The question is, let’s keep our heads on straight and talk about these things, and do some things for the ordinary people, and not just for the developers and their bottom line.

Q: The document talks about the Western New York Worker’s Center, started by the Western New York Council on Occupational Safety and Health. What does it do?

A: It’s an outreach organization that’s in the community on the ground floor, where people can come in and out, and learn about various aspects of the workplace, what their rights are, health and safety questions. One of the things the worker center group is very interested in is wage theft – are people being paid what they’re supposed to be paid? … This impacts on a lot of workers who are legally in this country and newly arrived, refugee populations.

We think this is an important aspect of this fight for a high-road economy, as well. There’s a lot of immigrant workers in this town. Some of them are refugees, some are immigrants. Some of them have high skills, and some are ordinary people, young people, just getting into the workforce, just learning a new society. The worker center will help them find their way, at least that is one of their goals.

Q: Part of your group’s document deals with social issues, beyond a union’s typical mission of economics. What’s the thinking behind that?

A: Our core mission is economic. The view of that document is, you can’t be a self-defense organization on economics unless you engage in political, social and cultural activities. Because otherwise we look like all we care about our own selfish concerns. We don’t.