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“Don’t Buy”

Just as it encouraged workers to buy union, the Central Trades & Labor Council (CTLC) blacklisted unfair employers. By 1910 the CTLC had initiated a “We Don’t Patronize List” and a process for placing employers on it. A union would bring to the CTLC meeting a complaint alleging an employer’’s unfair behavior. Generally the Council would vote to refer the complaint to the Grievance Committee, one of several standing committees, which would then investigate the charge, usually interviewing both parties. The Committee would then report its findings with a recommendation whether or not to place the employer on the “We Don’t Patronize” or “Unfair” list. In most instances the Council approved the Committee’s recommendation.

This process was modified in 1935 to require locals to bring complaints in writing bearing their union seal. Further, they had to demonstrate that all reasonable efforts had been made to resolve the controversy; once the employer was put on the unfair list, they were obliged to “conduct an active fight, with picketing, publicity, etc.” An employer could be withdrawn from the unfair list only by vote of the Council at the request of the local which made the initial complaint.

Scarcely a Council meeting went by without a complaint and a referral to the Grievance Committee, whose members were so busy that they eventually had to be reimbursed for some of the time spent investigating complaints. Initially the unfair list was maintained in a minute book kept by the Grievance Committee and shared only within the Council. Later, additions to and deletions from the list were published as part of the “Proceedings of the CTLC.” In 1932 the Card and Label League developed a plan to send quarterly unfair lists to all Council affiliates. Eventually the entire unfair list was published.

Many complaints arose from unfair hiring and were resolved within a short time. Other disputes escalated beyond the unfair list, while others were handled by direct action, without recourse to the Grievance Committee:

  • When Amalgamated Clothing Workers at Hickey Freeman received Community Chest materials lacking a union bug (printer’s label), they simply refused to accept them and sent them back (1923).
  • The White Star Baking Corporation met with the Grievance Committee following a complaint by the Bakers Union, but then stalled the Committee and finally discharged several members and hired scabs. During the ensuing 6-month strike the CTLC appealed to the City Schools (as well as to unions and the public) to boycott White Star products (1934).
  • When, at the Printers’ request, the CTLC placed on the Unfair List an independent Rochester paper, the Labor Herald, its editors almost sued the Council, maintaining that they were 100% union (1940).
  • The Building Trades Council served notice to Rochester’s Catholic Diocese that parishes failing to encourage the use of union contractors would be listed as unfair(1979), but the Diocese persisted in using non-union contractors, maintaining that they had no authority over parish renovations (1982).
  • When the Americana Hotel was placed on the unfair list by both the building trades and the Hotel and Restaurant Workers 466, the Rochester Teachers Association, the Democratic Party, the United Way, the National Conference of Catholic Churches, and the State Board of Regents all moved scheduled functions out of the hotel to honor the unions’ picket lines(1980). This created problems for unions and other organizations seeking union facilities for their functions. These concerns were resolved in 1987 when Local 466 announced a contract with the union-built Rochester Riverside Convention Center, where unions have held their banquets ever since.


In addition to unfair lists, organized labor can reduce the patronage of unfair employers through boycotts and strikes over job issues. As with unfair lists, these activities must be initiated by aggrieved unions. While central labor bodies cannot initiate boycotts and strikes, they have a long history of supporting such efforts.

One of Rochester’s earliest recorded boycotts grew out of a wage struggle at Kimball’s Tobacco Factory. When 1200 “cigarette girls,” members of the Knights of Labor, asked for a wage increase in 1883 the company not only rejected their demand but locked them out. After efforts by a Grievance Committee from KOL District Assembly 44 failed to resolve the dispute, the girls remained out and a boycott of Kimball was called and their tobacco products were listed in the Knights’ official publication, the Sunday Truth & Advocate & Mail. The Knights also waged several strikes over wage issues: the carriage-makers at Cunningham Works (1882), the Shoe Cutters (1887), and the Clothing Cutters (1890), the latter becoming a national struggle.

The CTLC supported a series of local boycotts — at Ward’s Bakery (1924-25); at the Jewish Ledger, when Jewish workers were asked not to buy the paper because of a printers’ dispute (1933); and at the White Star Bakery (1934). In 1934 the Council became involved in efforts to plan a national boycott of products from Nazi Germany.

Boycotts are most effective as national campaigns implemented at the local level. Thus, it was significant when the Rochester Labor Council (RLC) joined a boycott of Sears stores at the request of the Retail Clerks union in 1960. In 1964, when Rochester’s United Packinghouse Workers struck R.T. French, the ensuing nationwide boycott helped the workers emerge victorious after 4 weeks.

In 1968 the Council acted on its Union Label Committee’s recommendation that they join the boycott of California grapes. A local group, Citizens Against California Grapes, was formed and Mayor Lamb urged residents to join the boycott. In the summer of 1969 the RLC, Teamsters, and UAW joined forces to renew support for the boycott and in 1970 area Loblaws grocery stores agreed to stop carrying the grapes in response to month-long picketing.

Fara demonstration
Farah boycott demonstration, 1972, photo by Burr Lewis

The Farah slacks boycott received the RLC’s endorsement in June of 1972; 2000 demonstrators turned out in July to support the Amalgamated Clothing Workers in a picket line that encircled the Sibley, Lindsey & Curr store downtown. A similar picket line formed the following year as workers in Farah’s El Paso plants remained on strike. A relief drive for the strikers was coordinated by the RLC’s Union Label Committee.

The Rochester Labor Council would periodically go beyond the relatively simple edict that they refrain from patronizing a firm. In 1963, for example, an RLC delegation went to Sibley’s department store asking that they stop selling Jamestown-Sterling furniture, whose workers had been on strike for 6 months. And in 1966, after workers at Kingsport Press in Tennessee had been on strike for 3 years, the Rochester Printing Trades Council asked the RLC to urge the Rochester School Board not to buy school books from Kingsport; the RLC both wrote and sent a representative to the Board of Education meeting to make the case.

During the 1977-1987 nationwide protest against union buster Adolph Coors, the RLC formed a Coors Boycott Committee and staged several actions to publicize the beer boycott.

A 1988 effort by the United Food and Commercial Workers union to initiate a boycott against Wegmans supermarkets engendered considerable discussion as both the Bakers union and the Teamsters had significant bargaining units at Wegmans and much of Wegmans construction went union. As RLC by-laws stipulate that no boycott can be endorsed without the approval of all unions at that employer, a motion to stay neutral carried.