George Harrigan joined the Teamsters when he took a part-time job unloading UPS trucks in the late 1970s.
He worked his way through Canisius College, and when he graduated, family members suggested he take a job with UPS management. Harrigan thought otherwise.
“I said, ‘No, I’ve chosen to stay with the union, and that’s the path that I want to take, and I want to aspire to union office one of these days,’ ” he said.
Harrigan did just that. After winning election to different offices, he was elected principal officer and secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 449. Its 3,300 members include UPS workers, freight company employees, bus drivers and Rural/Metro emergency medical technicians.
Harrigan, 58, also is president of Teamsters Joint Council 46, which extends to Rochester. And on Monday, he will carry out a special honor, as grand marshal of the AFL-CIO Labor Day Parade in South Buffalo.
Q: How did you get interested in being a labor leader?
A: When I was in college, I was studying finance and history. And one of the history courses I was taking, some of the subject matter was the history of labor unions. I was intrigued by that. With the core study and then working in UPS and being a union member, and actually seeing the need for a union at UPS, that became my pathway for what I wanted to do the rest of my life.
Q: Why did you see a need for a union at UPS?
A: People actually needed a voice at the workplace. The way the employees were treated, if there wasn’t a union at the workplace, they couldn’t speak up at all. Certainly the members at UPS needed a voice because of the issues of basically respect and work, the way people should be treated.
Q: How would you describe the state of organized labor in Western New York?
A: I think the state of organized labor in Western New York is good, better than the nation, but it can always be better.
Q: Western New York has a higher rate of private-sector membership than most parts of the country (16.3 percent in 2014). Why do you think that this is?
A: I think because Buffalo’s a blue-collar town. It’s always been a blue-collar town. It’s in people’s roots. That’s where they came from. That’s how their parents and grandparents lifted themselves out of poverty. Only through the union and collective bargaining were they able to achieve those dreams, and they haven’t forgotten that.
Q: You’ve worked with James P. Hoffa, the president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. What is he like?
A: Mr. Hoffa is probably the most normal person in the world, very gregarious. Mr. Hoffa loves to meet the members. He’s the real McCoy. He’s not a guy sitting in the ivory tower. He’s a guy that’s out there working every day and working hard for the Teamsters and organized labor.
Q: What issues are members of Local 449 facing?
A: The issues they’re up against today, of course, are the stagnating wages. And most important of all is the level of benefits related to health care, the diminishing of good health care benefits in companies that went over to high-deductible plans. High-deductible plans are actually only for the healthy and the wealthy. These high-deductible plans, you can have up to $10,000 that could actually come out of an individual’s pocket before the medical insurance kicks in.
This is basically bankruptcy insurance. This puts our members and their families in a horrible situation. They don’t have that kind of money. … A lot of them won’t go see the doctor, because of that.
As far as I’m concerned, one of the leading issues of the stagnation of wages is the cost of maintaining a decent health plan.
Q: We hear about driver shortages at trucking companies. How are companies you work with responding to that?
A: We have such a shortage of the CDL Class A drivers. There’s a great demand for them. Employers are calling the union and asking us for help and seeking quality drivers. But they’re just not out there. The generation (of current drivers) today, it’s mostly older men. And younger people today are not interested in being a truck driver, which I maintain is highly skilled. You’re talking about tractor-trailers, you’re talking about tankers. You have to be extremely highly skilled and not only that, you’ve got to live a clean life. Because of the (Department of Transportation) rules and regs, we’re tested all the time.
Q: What does it mean to you to be grand marshal of the Labor Day parade?
A: Well, I don’t like the spotlight. I put it this way: There’s a lot of deserving people that can have that title. Labor works collectively as a team in Western New York and I’m part of that team, so it’s just good to be pulled off the bench and put into the game. It’s nice recognition for the Teamsters union. Besides my own family, the Teamsters, that’s my second family.