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Electoral Activity

COPE button
UAW button
Union electoral campaign buttons, collection of Linda H. Donahue

It is customary to think of organized labor’s role in politics in terms of partisan support, and it is true that Rochester’s central labor councils (CLCs) have supported parties and platforms, and have endorsed and worked for individual candidates. Besides the Democrat and Republican parties Rochester CLCs have supported national campaigns of the Labor Reform and Greenback Labor parties (1869-1870), the Socialist Party (1900-1920), the Farmer-Labor Party (1921), the Progressive Party (1924), and the American Labor Party (1944).

By the 1870s the United States had become essentially a two-party country and while Rochester workers might applaud radically pro-labor parties and candidates, they voted overwhelmingly Democrat or Republican. Though third parties challenged the hegemony of the major parties, the most they could generally hope to accomplish was to take votes away from one of them. Thus the contradiction was established early for working class voters (who, it must be remembered, were until 1926 all males): to endorse or to vote for a third party candidate was, in practice, less a vote for a person or platform than a vote against one of the two major party candidates.

The pattern of labor and CLC participation in electoral politics emerged as early as 1870, when Rochester workers’ independent Labor Reform Party ran candidates unsuccessfully for state and county offices, with most workers’ votes going to Democrat and Republican victors.

In 1871, however, Labor Reform candidates for mayor and city treasurer actually won — but only because they were endorsed by the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively. Rochester’s United Workingmen’s Party (known in Rochester as the “Breadwinners’ Party”) lost close races for state and county offices in 1877 and again in 1878 (this time allied with the state’s Greenback Party); in 1878, however, candidates won minor local offices.

Similarly in 1882, when Knights of Labor District Assembly 44 Secretary David Healy was elected to the State Assembly, it was endorsement by the Democrats that ensured his success. Once in Albany, Healy (a member of the Knights’ General Executive Board and editor of the International Labor Advocate) secured passage of a bill creating the New York State Bureau of Labor Statistics and immediately left the Assembly in 1883 to become Chief Clerk of the Bureau. (He would go on to become editor of the Irish World and a supporter of social reformer Henry George.)

In 1883 Rochester labor candidates were defeated but drew enough votes from the Democrats to ensure a Republican victory. In 1887 shoemaker P. Andrew Sullivan was elected to the Assembly running as a Democrat. This pattern persisted and “No independent labor party ever made headway here during the eighties and nineties and Rochester workers, when election time rolled around, voted conservatively according to their previous political affiliation with Democrats and Republicans.” [SOURCES: Hawley,123-4]

Between 1900 and 1920 Rochester workers expressed interest in the unsuccessful electoral efforts of the Socialist Party and the Socialist Labor Party. Running as a socialist in 1902 William T. Brown, a local minister, managed to outpoll the Democrat and Republican candidates for lieutenant-governor in Rochester’s 17th ward, though losing to them city-wide. By 1904 the Socialist Labor Party, not having received 10,000 votes, lost its position on the ballot and had to requalify at every election. Socialists ran no ticket in 1905 and did poorly in 1906 and 1907. Gad Martindale, a member of the Boot and Shoe Makers Union, ran unsuccessfully as the Socialist Party candidate for Mayor in 1907 (in the process provoking the Central Trades & Labor Council (CTLC) to ban him and suspend his union from the Council). Despite local enthusiasm for Eugene Debs as Socialist Party candidate for president — with huge crowds greeting his “Red Special” campaign train and 5000 packing Convention Hall to hear him denounce the “political degeneracy” of the Democrats and Republicans — Rochester cast only 1400 votes for him in 1908.

In 1910, while Milwaukee was electing socialists as mayor and congressman, Rochester’s socialists did poorly. Even in 1912 when Debs received nearly 900,000 votes campaigning on a platform that abolished child labor, established a minimum wage as well as unemployment, health and old age insurance, and enfranchised women, Rochester gave him only 1,200 votes. (In 1915 Rochester, home of Susan B. Anthony, defeated women’s suffrage by 4,700 votes!)

In 1917, opposition to World War I, including that of the AFL itself, found expression at the ballot box and Rochester socialists actually polled over 8000 votes. While Republicans won the mayoral and city and county races, seven socialists were elected to minor offices. But this was the high-water mark. Once America entered the conflict opposition faltered, the AFL became a supporter of the war, and both the war and the Bolshevik revolution divided socialists among themselves and turned public sentiment against them. Though popular in the labor community, socialists William Bolton (Carpenters Local 179) and John Dennis (Iron Molders Local 12) were unable to win election in 1920 to the State Assembly.

Unlike the Knights of Labor earlier and the CIO later, the AFL by 1920 adopted a policy of supporting individual politicians rather than endorsing political parties and their platforms — of rewarding friends and punishing enemies — a policy of non-partisan politics.

Starting in 1920 with a Committee on Non-Partisan Political Campaigns the CTLC adhered to this policy, right through the formation of its Committee on Political Education (COPE) in 1956. Within this policy framework the CTLC endorsed or opposed candidates and supported selected campaigns, with mixed results at the polls. Presidential endorsements included LaFollette (1924, lost); Hoover (1932, lost); Roosevelt (1944, won); Truman (1948, won). Endorsements for other races included labor candidates, such as lithographer Julius Hoesterey for State Senate (1946) and CTLC President William Burke for School Commission (1951).

The Council also occasionally waged campaigns to defeat politicians, including anti-union State Assemblymen (1919), Senator Wadsworth (1929), and even Franklin Roosevelt (1932), whose labor record as New York governor did not inspire CTLC confidence in his first presidential bid. The CTLC also tried to recall Rochester mayor Broderick (1949).

The Council’s Committee on Non-Partisan Political Campaigns was succeeded in 1944 by a Political Action Committee, which in turn was replaced from 1947 to 1954 by the AFL Labor League’s Education and Political League and then, following the AFL-CIO merger in 1956, by the COPE Committee.

As labor rejoiced in John F. Kennedy’s 1960 election to the White House, the Rochester Labor Council (RLC) passed a resolution that the Council’s COPE activities, co-chaired by the President and 1st Vice President, be year-round. While the COPE committee met regularly, endorsements weren’t always recommended, the committee sometimes opting to reserve its funds and energies for years when the stakes were perceived as being higher. Thus, there were no endorsements made in 1963 but 1964 saw thousands attend a labor-sponsored rally for Robert Kennedy, candidate for U.S. Senate, and COPE scheduled a series of radio and TV broadcasts to win support for all labor-backed candidates.

Spoofing the election of Ronald Reagan as Governor of California, the Labor News editor wrote in 1966 “Save our Stars, Please!! Have we, as a nation, strayed so far from reality that we can afford to lose the very STARS from our entertainment heavens and convert them, with our own votes, to the dismal living death of politics?”

Frequently, profits realized from RLC events were donated to the COPE fund; such was the case in 1969 when a dinner honoring RLC President Andy Schneider and Executive Board Chairman Salvatore Ciaccio netted $2,750.

Among area legislators heavily supported by local labor was Republican Frank Horton. Endorsed year after year, Congressman Horton proved a stalwart friend of working people and their unions as he repeatedly went against his political party’s preferences to support legislation that was on labor’s agenda. In 1966 Horton’s re-election office was actually picketed by the Conservative Party. In 1967 he was honored at a Union Label and Service Trades dinner for his almost 100% COPE record.

Other Republicans were not as friendly to labor’s causes. In 1972 RLC President Jimmy Colombo announced he would honor a request from the AFL-CIO Genesee Labor Council that labor bodies in Rochester, Buffalo, Niagara Falls, and all adjacent areas meet periodically to organize full labor support behind that year’s political activities to unseat President Nixon. Of the President, RLC head Jimmy Colombo declared “The president has proved to us, and to all of labor across this country, that his philosophies concerning the working people are not worthy of workers’ support. He has taxed the poor and given the rich added tax loopholes. He has frozen wages and allowed profits to rise. He has done nothing or not enough about unemployment. He is trying to win passage in Congress of legislation that would cripple the basic right to strike. He has vetoed or fought against humane and welfare legislation needed during this period of economic unrest. He has, in short, served special interests but not the people, and we will oppose him at the polls with whatever we can muster.” The RLC repeatedly called for the President’s impeachment in 1974.

The Council tried vainly to unseat veteran Republican Congressman Barber Conable on several occasions, vigorously supporting Democrat Midge Constanza in the 1974 race. Voter registration drives were an ongoing activity of the COPE committee, which worked with other labor organizations like the local chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the Building Trades Council, and the then unaffiliated UAW and Teamsters unions to get out the vote. Lt. Governor Mario Cuomo was endorsed in his successful bid for the Governor’s seat in 1982, during which campaign local union volunteers manned phone banks to promote his candidacy.

The next major campaign for the RLC was to unseat Republican Congressman Fred Eckert, who had the worst labor voting record of any member of Congress in the northeast. Taking him on in 1986 was Assemblywoman Louise Slaughter, with a 100% COPE record. The RLC put enormous effort into Slaughter’s successful race. Following Slaughter’s election RLC President Pettengill said, “What we did in this election was important. Now we need to build our involve union members, their families, and union retirees to work for our causes, whether to elect a candidate who will listen to us, help an affiliate in trouble, picket, rally, or whatever is needed. If any of our 97 affiliates is attacked, we will have the army to fight.”

Louse Slaughter supporters
Louise Slaughter supporters, Labor Day Parade, 1986, photo by Marilyn Anderson

The Council’s COPE committee, under the leadership of Tony Bernardo (UAW 1097), was organized so effectively that during the 1993 election season 158 union volunteers on labor-to-labor phone banks made over 30,000 phone calls. Also in the 1990s COPE formalized the Council’s endorsement process, requiring that candidates seeking endorsement respond to questionnaires and participate in interviews.

In 1996, seeking an alternative to the two-party system that left labor feeling taken for granted or discounted altogether, some Rochester union activists looked hopefully at the recently organized Labor Party. Both the RLC and the BTC formed chapters of the Party and sent delegations to the Party’s founding convention. However, conflicting perspectives about the Party’s goals and strategies prevented it from developing into a viable entity. More enduring was the formation of the Working Families Party, which secured a ballot line in 1998 and with which the RLC affiliated the following year.