This report grew out of an initial effort to update and supplement All These Years of Effort, a history of Rochester's central labor bodies, published by the Pettengill Labor Education Fund in 2005. That book, subsequently published electronically (http://rochesterlabor.org/rlc-history/), had gone out of print and out of date by 2018, when the Fund decided to make it available to the labor community through a second print edition.
The new edition was to include a supplement reflecting recent changes in the structure and leadership of the Rochester Labor Council; changes in membership (away from manufacturing toward public sector work); changes in the political landscape; the impact of JANUS; the impact of technology; and implications of a part-time/contingent workforce.
Costs of producing this second edition were to be shared by the Pettengill Fund and the Rochester Area Community Foundation's John F. Wegman Fund. However, just as efforts for the second edition were to begin, Rochester's workforce began to experience the COVID-19 pandemic in ways that suggested we might best put our efforts into documenting the impact of the pandemic on the Labor Council's unions and their members. With RACF's approval, we revised our plans and initiated the series of interviews presented here.
We formulated questions to be included in our survey and reached out to unions affiliated with the Rochester Labor Council. Initially we invited unions to prepare and submit written responses to our questionnaire but eventually we began contacting locals and arranging to speak with officers by Zoom. This generated a series of interviews, generally lasting from forty-five minutes to an hour, in which both of us participated. Afterward one of us — usually Jon — would draft a summary which Linda would then edit and share with the interviewee, whose comments would then be incorporated into the final report.
Ultimately twenty unions shared their COVID-19 experiences. Despite many similarities in the impact of the pandemic on our unions, as well as significant differences, the survey clearly reveals that they were largely able to protect members who provide essential services and products, chiefly through enforcement of contracts and strong relations with management. Our survey also shows that union members have been well-served by knowledgeable, empathetic union staff and officers, frequently supported by their international unions.
The interviews are presented here in the order in which they were conducted. Their chronology reflects our evolving awareness of the pandemic and its impact, as our unions and employers responded to changing circumstances.
Among public sector unions at the federal level, workers were somewhat protected under their contracts, though a hiring freeze curtailed replacement workers among Letter Carriers, leading to extensive overtime; also, New York State failed to designate these workers as essential. Postal Workers, however, succeeded in negotiating unpenalized absences from work. Statewide unions were somewhat hampered in their efforts to protect members as the State transferred many regional PEF workers to beleaguered New York City worksites; CSEA members experienced some layoffs and furloughs. At the local level, education workers were subject to State decisions about school closures, with most teachers working virtually but support staff, including BENTE AFSCME members of the Rochester City School District, were laid off. While the Firefighters' contract was largely respected by both the City and the Fire Department, neither the City nor the Police Department were supportive of members of the Locust Club, even trying to change their contract.
Private sector unions were effective in protecting members through contract enforcement. The UAW negotiated with GM a series of changes at the Lexington Avenue plant, including conversion of unused space for the production of face masks. Masks were also produced at Hickey-Freeman, though some workers were laid off. Most CWA members remained on the job, as did GCIU printers. Tops groceries largely respected its contract with UFCW, even offering hazard pay. The Rochester Transit Authority cooperated with ATU in enforcing a three-month no fare-rear door policy. While contractors supplied Electricians with PPE, the Laborers union itself provided protective equipment to members. Strong Hospital agreed to extend its contract with SEIU 1199 to avoid bargaining during the pandemic, while the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra continued to pay members of the Musicians union despite cancellation of the season.
Our survey confirms findings by the Economic Policy Institute that sectors of the economy with higher unionization rates tended to see less job loss during the pandemic, while workers covered by a union contract earned on average 11.2% more in wages than non-unionized workers.
We appreciate the enthusiastic cooperation of participating unions and hope this report will prove interesting and useful to their members and other readers.
Jon Garlock and Linda Donahue