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Organizing: 1960 - 2005

Rochester & Vicinity Labor Council, AFL-CIO

Following the 1959 merger of the AFL and CIO councils, Rochester’s new central body had high hopes in 1960 for “the largest city-wide organizing effort ever undertaken here.” The plan was to sign-up 25,000 new union members in industry, cafeterias, hotels and motels, home-building contractors, and small establishments.

To this end, and in accordance with the wishes of the AFL-CIO leadership, an Organizing Committee of the Rochester Labor Council (RLC) was formed. RLC President Schneider noted that “The AFL-CIO organizing department picked Rochester as a pilot city in the new organizing effort because much of this city’s major industry was still not organized, and the field here is ripe for such a campaign.” The committee was to meet monthly; all organizing activities were to be coordinated through the committee and reported to AFL-CIO Region 2 Director Michael Mann; jurisdictional disputes would be settled by the committee or by the national AFL-CIO; the RLC was to create a special fund to finance the committee’s work; and educational programs to inform workers about the importance of unions would be instituted by Labor News.

By August of 1960 the Organizing Committee included 50 members from 30 different local unions. One of their first acts was to sponsor a day-long organizing symposium in 1961, attended by 160 local activists who were hopeful that “the anti-labor restrictions of the Eisenhower years would ease under President Kennedy.” As a result of what they learned at that session the committee compiled a list of suggestions to improve the effectiveness of organizing, including:

  • Pool the efforts of all unions though the committee
  • Minimize jurisdictional disputes
  • Encourage personal contact, especially through housecalls
  • Set up an RLC Public Relations Committee
  • Promote the Union Label
  • Put organizing on the agenda of every local union meeting
  • Promote current campaigns with members and their families
  • Dispel fear among the unorganized, especially among immigrants, by using organizers of their national origin
  • Issue “Volunteer Organizer” cards and buttons to members of in-plant committees
  • Institute a continual educational program of the RLC, forums for the public to learn about labor’s contributions
  • Urge all locals to subscribe to Labor News for their members
  • Ask Building Trades members to lay the groundwork at job sites
  • Continue political activity to ensure labor has friends in that arena
  • Stress labor’s participation in the education of youth
  • Build relations with minority groups
  • Involve more women as organizers
  • Get local unions to “unionize” their members
  • Ask union members to give organizers the names of friends or relatives working in non-union establishments as a guide to organizing potential.

In April of 1961 the RLC Executive Board was warned by organizers that unions in the U.S. will become a “vanishing race” unless every labor union here and in the nation begins the “serious and urgent business of organizing the unorganized now.” The building trades union leadership also vowed their commitment to accepting new members. Building Trades Council (BTC) President Howard Dalton said “We must make it clear to the members that unless we take in all qualified construction workers, their non-union status in the end will undermine our own wages and benefits, resulting in a greater loss of jobs than if we kept the applicants out.”

The first major drive of the Organizing Committee involved organizing 3000 city workers. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) planned a campaign for city employees. The RLC Executive Board recommended that representatives of all unions wishing to organize city workers (building trades, AFSCME, machinists, culinary trades) proceed jointly. AFSCME opened an office on Lyell Avenue and hired Jack Cicotte away from the Amalgamated Clothing Workers to head the campaign. By July of 1962 AFSCME had authorization cards signed by 98% of the 1000 workers at the city’s Department of Public Works and they proceeded to seek recognition from City Council, which was accomplished by September. However, the non-affiliated Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) won a restraining order prohibiting the city manager from recognizing the new unit. CSEA’s request for an injunction was quickly denied by the New York Supreme Court and AFSCME eventually prevailed.

In June 1962, thanks to President Kennedy’s Executive Order, 2000 postal workers in Rochester were able to join others across the nation in the largest union representation election ever. The local wrote to the Rochester labor community via an open letter to Labor News that September (“Allow us to introduce ourselves ... we are Rochester Local 215, National Federation of Postal Clerks”) and sought the community’s support for a bill that would provide them with a pay increase.

With the 1962 passage of state legislation granting bargaining rights to hospital workers, the Rochester AFL-CIO Hospital Workers Organizing Committee — comprised of Hotel and Restaurant Workers Local 466, Building Service Employees Local 197, and Laundry Workers Local 39 — planned to organize 1500 such workers. However, by the summer of 1965 that coalition had dissolved with the agreement that each union would attempt to organize independently.

In 1968 Labor News noted that “for the first time in history here, a formal union agreement has been signed between the County of Monroe and area labor organizations,” as a result of the recently enacted Public Employees Fair Employment Practices Act— the Taylor Law. Republicans in the Monroe County legislature insisted that before recognition would be granted, a full 65% of the unit members must have signed authorization cards.

The 1972 merger of the New York State Teachers Association (affiliated with the independent National Education Association) and the United Teachers of New York (affiliated with the American Teachers Association, AFL-CIO) created the New York State United Teachers, AFL-CIO. Their merger added approximately 11,000 teachers to the ranks of the RLC, the most significant jump in membership the Council had experienced in modern times. Even though the merger ended in 1976, most teachers elected to retain their membership in the AFL-CIO and by 2005 more than 20,000 NYSUT members were also members of the RLC.

Through the 1960s, 70s and 80s several local unions affiliated or re-affiliated with the RLC including the Musicians Local 66 (1963), Amalgamated Transit Union Local 282 (1964), the National Union of Physicians, SEIU Local 682 (1973), Monroe County Federation of Social Workers, IUE 381 (1972), Monroe County Deputy Sheriffs (1977), Professional Air Traffic Controllers Local 267 (1980), American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) 1635 (1985), and several divisions of the Public Employees Federation (1985-86). When the 5000 members of UAW 1097 rejoined the Council in 1985, RLC President Ron Pettengill said “We’re excited and pleased to have them back with us. This only serves to demonstrate the depth of 1097’s commitment to strengthening the voice of local labor in its service to working men and women.”

The Council donated hundreds of dollars to the American Federation of Teachers toward their successful campaign at Monroe Community College, as well as their fruitless effort to organize faculty at the Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Rochester in 1967. The Council backed the Hospital and Rest Home Employees/1199’s successful campaign to organize the Anthony Jordan Health Center in 1977.

Kleen-Brite picketers
Rally for Kleen-Brite workers, 1989, photo by Marilyn Anderson

During the 1988 ACTWU campaign at Kleen Brite the RLC supported the effort through letters and demonstrations. In May 1989, 300 people marched in front of Kleen Brite’s Oak Street plant in a rally co-sponsored by the RLC, ACTWU and the Community Coalition for Workers Rights. When workers still had no contract in 1991, two and a half years after voting for union representation, the RLC endorsed a March rally which drew over 300 people.

In 1989 the RLC welcomed as affiliates the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Airport Firefighters 1636, and the Teamsters Joint Council, led by newly-elected President Frank Posato, with Locals 118, 398, and 791.

Several United Way agencies — Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Foodlink, and Visiting Nurse Service — thwarted their workers’ efforts to join unions in the 1990s, while employees at the Nortonian Nursing Home joined SEIU 1199. The unsuccessful attempt to organize Rochester Gas and Electric employees by the Utility Workers in 1997 was followed by a successful election for the IBEW there in 2003. The RLC supported Teamsters 118 in the national UPS strike of 1997 and celebrated when teachers at the Rochester School for the Deaf voted for NYSUT representation in 1998. Likewise, the national UNITE HERE campaign to organize industrial laundry workers at CINTAS received the RLC’s endorsement.