After the 1955 merger of the AFL and CIO national organizations, mergers of their central bodies had to be orchestrated at the local level. In Rochester that was completed in November 1959 with the formation of the Rochester & Vicinity Labor Council, AFL-CIO. This new organization pledged early on to play a strong role in the community and quickly established a committee structure that would support the Council’s activities.
By June of 1960 the Rochester Labor Council (RLC) had an ambitious plan to organize 25,000 new union members from the city’s industrial plants, hotels and motels, and home-building contractors. However, the 1960s saw significant changes in the composition of the labor movement here and elsewhere. Postal Service employees won collective bargaining rights in 1962 as did New York State’s hospital workers and in 1966 the State enacted the Taylor Law, bringing many more public sector workers into the union fold. Thus the RLC saw a rise in the participation of service and government sector unions into the 1970s and 80s at the same time private sector jobs, union and non-union alike, were leaving the area for low-wage regions in the South and off shore.
While individual unions struggled against a tide of corporate flight, the RLC tried to win improvements for working people by urging support for a federal program of health insurance, full employment legislation, occupational safety and health protection, and labor law reform. During the Clinton administration Rochester labor was heartened by passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act, but was discouraged by passage of so-called Free Trade Agreements that hastened the demise of manufacturing here and the exploitation of workers in other countries.
Throughout this era, the official publication of the Rochester & Vicinity Labor Council, AFL-CIO was the weekly Labor News. According to longtime editor Alex Gaby, the purpose of Labor News was “to bring before the eyes and hearts of its readers the aims and programs of organized labor.” Subscribers, numbering 21,500 in 1969, were informed about local collective bargaining agreements, labor-management strife, national and local boycotts or strikes, workplace-related legislation, and the platforms of political candidates. In 1996 the paper was bought by the Building Trades Council; while it continues to be a vehicle for local labor reporting, its content is largely comprised of reports to members of local construction unions.
Since the 1970s, Rochester unions have been served by a local office of Cornell University’s ILR School whose Labor Studies Program taught hundreds of area unionists the fundamentals of collective bargaining, labor history, and labor law. But not all education occurs in the classroom. The RLC’s Education Committee revived the tradition of a Labor Day Parade beginning in 1986 and resurrected a long dormant Labor Lyceum in 2000. The Labor Lyceum offers public forums for the discussion of issues important to working people such as the decline of manufacturing, the politics of tax policy, and the future of work in Rochester. Additionally, the Education Committee has offered a Labor Film Series, bringing films like Harlan County USA, Grapes of Wrath, and Salt of the Earth to the Dryden Theater for public viewing. The RLC’s Labor Education Fund, established in honor of RLC President Ron Pettengill, has supported a host of educational activities related to labor, including projects like the video labor history of Rochester, Struggle in Smugtown (2002), design of the RochesterLabor.org web site (2003), and work on the history of Rochester's central labor bodies published in 2005 as All These Years of Effort.
The RLC’s Union Label Committee was quite active from 1960 until the 1980s. They led local efforts to promote the purchase of union-made goods by participating in and hosting annual Union Label and Service Trades Department conventions where unions and employers cooperatively displayed products made with union labor. In the 1970s, the RLC’s Union Label Committee circulated petitions on behalf of legislation that would stem the influx of foreign, low-wage imports while encouraging union families to purchase union-made goods whenever possible.
The Rochester labor community showed its solidarity most often by standing with affiliates during difficult times. Both moral and financial support were gratefully received by area unions during conflicts such as CWA 1170’s 1961 strike against Rochester Telephone, postal workers opposing a speed-up in 1963, nursing home workers seeking a fair contract at the Lakeshore Nursing Home in 1982, and plumbers protesting a 1989 wage cut demanded by contractor John P. Bell.
At the same time, the Rochester Labor Council has played an important role in the community. As early as 1971, RLC President Jack Cicotte was chastising city leaders for not doing more to stop runaway plants as area unemployment tripled. The RLC worked with allied organizations to form a Rochester Unemployment Council in 1982 to help the unemployed gain access to benefits and services.
Service on non-profit agency boards has been a hallmark of the RLC for generations. RLC representatives have served the American Red Cross, the United Way, the Association of Retarded Citizens, the Joseph Wilson Health Center, and many more. Through its Labor Liaison position with the United Way, first established in 1974, the Council has provided emergency assistance to union members and referred them to area agencies for needed services.
For many years Rochester construction unions have contributed to the community with an array of volunteer projects that range from adapting homes for people with disabilities to building facilities at camps for sick children. The Building Trades Council has also united the trades behind solidarity endeavors, such as a four-month strike in 1970, passage and retention of prevailing wage laws, and actions to oppose the exploitation of immigrant labor.Top