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Legislative Activity

Of couse the purpose in electing politicians to office is to get them to vote for or against legislation that affects unions and their members. Local labor legislative activity can be traced at least as far back as the 1860s and, in 1873, the Rochester Workingmen’s Assembly grew concerned enough about national labor issues to open one of its two monthly meetings “to public discussion on the rights of labor and legislative means of protecting them.” [Sources (Gleason, 99)] Among the early legislative issues workers discussed were opposition to convict labor (1868-1869) and support for the 8-hour day (1870, 1873).

Later, Rochester’s central labor bodies would press their state, federal, and local representatives on a wide range of issues. Some of the key efforts of the Central Trades & Labor Council (CTLC) were made in support of specific legislation that would establish workers compensation (1913, 1935), the 8-hour day (1924, 1931- 1934) and the 30-hour week of five 6-hour days (1931-1935); create a minimum wage (1911), including one for women (1915); give ownership of railroads and mines to the government (1918), give women the vote (1917), lower utility rates (1930) and provide low-cost housing (1940).

Other legislation supported by the central labor bodies would require employers’ liability (1912), create a labor department (1912), provide funds to complete the Barge Canal (1915), permit Sunday baseball (1918), bring home the troops (1919), require strikebreakers to register with local authorities (1922), permit the sale of beer and wine (1922), pay the soldiers’ bonus (1931), amend the Radio Act to permit a labor station (1931), approve a Rochester relief bond (1933), create more jobs in Monroe County (1934), license a labor radio station (1934), pay prevailing wages (1934), and require equal pay for equal work for women (1951).

During the first half of the 20th century the CTLC coordinated state, local and federal legislative efforts in distinctly different ways.

The CTLC Legislative Committee was responsible both for informing the Council of impending state legislation that might affect workers and for coordinating appropriate responses, such as sending letters or delegations to Albany. In 1917 the Council instructed the Chair of the Legislative Committee to proceed to Albany whenever “any bill pertaining to labor came up for a hearing.” As Chair of the Committee, Emanuel Koveleski prepared detailed digests of state labor legislation and represented the Council at hearings such as that in 1921 on the recodification of New York State labor law. The Legislative Committee ceased in 1951.

Legislative affairs at the local level were conducted directly by the CTLC through resolutions or by special committees appointed to deal with individual issues such as opposition to Daylight Savings Time (1921, 1926, 1934), requiring that local labor be hired by Erie Canal contractors (1922), or demanding reduction of light and gas rates (1932). For several years the Council also sent paid representatives to attend and report on the meetings of Rochester’s City Council.

Support of or opposition to federal legislation was largely coordinated through the AFL, which reported regularly on pending legislation and urged central labor bodies to send resolutions, letters and postcards to their Congressional representatives. In 1923 the request of Congressman-elect Meyer Jacobstein that the CTLC appoint a committee “to act in regard to legislation as it comes up regarding the welfare of the workers” led to creation of a Congressional Committee, which continued through 1935.

The CTLC also vigorously opposed anti-union and anti-worker laws such as those that would establish a state constabulary (1915), require universal military training (1918), outlaw strikes (1922), permit film censorship (1922), prohibit speaking on street corners (1925), establish military conscription (1926), impose a national retail sales tax (1943, 1949), impose a National Service Act (1944), prohibit strikes by state employees (1949), and establish permanent voter registrancy (opposed in 1950 by the Printers Union, whose members would lose the work necessitated by voters having to register anew for each election!).

One of the longest and most bitter struggles was labor’s opposition to the Taft-Hartley Act, both before and after passage of the “Slave Labor” law that led to “Right to Work” states and instituted the loyalty-oath among unions.

The 1960s saw several significant labor-backed campaigns to win federal legislation intended to improve the quality of life for the country’s working class.

The Rochester Labor Council (RLC) joined with the rest of organized labor to push for a federal program of health insurance for older Americans. For years the pages of the Labor News blasted the American Medical Association for its failure to support such bills and urged union members to write their congressmen and senators to vote for this important Social Security-based program. The RLC regularly communicated their support for the legislation to area representatives and expressed their opposition when a means-test was suggested in 1965.

In addition to passing Medicare, top legislative priorities in the 1960s included seeking an increase in the federal minimum wage to $1.25 (1961), the Civil Rights bill (1963) and Johnson’s Great Society programs to eliminate poverty (1965). RLC President Andy Schneider kept up a stream of correspondence to legislators supporting these measures and encouraged affiliates to do the same.

At the state level, the RLC supported a wide range of legislation:

  • prohibiting employers from importing/using strikebreakers (1961-66). In an editorial, Labor News editor Alex Gaby wrote “The soft, sad music goes on to describe the terrible plight of employers deprived of scabs with which to continue their operations when their regular employes are striking for a better contract, or more security against scabs”
  • regaining for workers the former right to two hours of paid time-off to vote (1961-64)
  • amending NYS labor law to grant health care workers (1962-64) and farm workers (1968) collective bargaining rights
  • repeal of or revisions to the Condon-Wadlin law to ease penalties against striking public sector workers (1962-65) and, subsequently, amendments to the state’s Taylor Law to allow public employees to strike under extreme provocation (1969)
  • an increase in the state minimum wage (1962, 1964) and minimum wage coverage for farm workers (1969)
  • improvements in workmen’s compensation coverage and disability benefits (1963, 1965)
  • the prohibition of the use of lie detectors in employment decisions (1963-65)
  • reducing water pollution (1965)
  • making it a misdemeanor to deny medical attention to Medicaid recipients (1966)
  • requiring retailers to remain closed on Sundays and holidays (1967)

The RLC also opposed legislation that denied unemployment insurance to workers on strike or locked out (1964-69) and instituted a 3% state sales tax (1965).

The RLC was also active concerning local legislation in the 1960s, strongly endorsing establishment of a community college and suggesting it be housed in the former East High School on Prince Street (1961); supporting the retention of rent controls (1961); and encouraging City Council to outlaw the import of strikebreakers during labor disputes (1961-1962). After the law was passed, Mayor Gillette was quoted as saying “If any industry planning to locate in Rochester doesn’t want to come here because we have an anti-strikebreaker law, that is the kind of industry we don’t want!”

By the 1970s, any hopes that section 14-b of Taft-Hartley would be repealed appear to have been squelched. Attention to federal legislation in the 70s was heavily focused on curbing foreign, “slave wage” imports that were costing Rochester thousands of jobs in the men’s clothing industry and other manufacturing sectors. A bill was introduced to City Council that would tax salesmen and retail establishments that handled imported products such as men’s suits made by low-wage workers in Hong Kong.

At an August 1971 meeting sponsored by the RLC, attendees passed the following resolutions:

  • to create a Council Speakers Bureau to warn the community of the threat imports pose
  • to instigate boycotts of imported products
  • to encourage the purchase of products bearing the union label, or from places displaying the union shop card or where workers wear union service buttons
  • to win compliance from employers to feature union labels/shop cards/service buttons
  • to promote “Buy American” through use of bumper stickers, posters, and ads
  • to reactivate the Council’s Union Label Committee

State legislation that threatened to deny unemployment insurance benefits to striking workers continued to be fought; the Labor Council held a forum with state senators and assemblymen and sent a contingent to Albany to lobby against the bill. RLC President Jack Cicotte’s 1971 response to a question about whether industry would leave New York State if strikers received unemployment benefits was to point out that the local railroad shops, General Dynamics, and two clothing factories had recently closed even though workers were not on strike.

In 1971 the Health Security Act was introduced to provide adequate health insurance coverage to all Americans, regardless of age, income, or place of residence and would also establish a Health Resources Development Fund to provide education and training to health care professionals. RLC President Cicotte said “For the past century, at least, the medical profession has fought enactment of such legislation although the inability of most Americans to afford adequate health protection in the face of spiraling doctor fees and hospital rates was apparent to all of us.” The Council urged all union members to contact their representatives in Congress to vote for this bill.

These legislative issues persisted well into the 1970s. In 1973 RLC Teachers delegate Rose Carmody was applauded when she stated at a Council meeting that “Nixon considers the financial needs of the Pentagon more important than the needs of the people” as he cut federal dollars for programs designed to help the poor, the old, the unemployed, the sick, and the underprivileged. President Ford had a similar disregard for working families: the RLC wrote to Congress urging they override Ford’s vetoes of bills to allow emergency housing, school lunch programs, and picketing at a construction site when unions had a dispute with only one of the contractors at the site.

Improvements in minimum wages, unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation benefits continued to be pursued at the state level as were amendments to the punitive Taylor Law governing public sector workers. But the big push in the late 1970s was at the federal level for the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment law and the Labor Law Reform bill. AFL-CIO field representative Humphrey Donahue exhorted delegates at a 1978 Council meeting to support the bill: “We don’t want Humphrey-Hawkins passed just as a memorial to our late great friend (Senator Hubert Humphrey), we want it passed because America needs it, and on this issue there can’t be any forgiveness in any union member’s heart for any congressman who votes against it. The votes on this bill in the House and Senate will be a critical test of who our friends are, and who are not our friends.” Labor Law Reform failed entirely and the Humphrey-Hawkins bill was emasculated prior to passage in the Senate.

Occupational safety and health took the spotlight in the early 1980s as the RLC protested the Reagan administration’s weakening of the OSHA inspection process and closure of the Rochester OSHA office, hailed as “tremendous news” by the Chamber of Commerce president, as “OSHA does nothing but stifle business.”

Also in the 1980s the Building Trades were heartened by state legislators’ support for setting prevailing wages according to union pay scales. The RLC backed legislation (1983) to make possession of a dangerous weapon a misdemeanor in response to the stabbing death of city school district tutor Peter Castle. A proposal that would tax employee benefits was strongly opposed (1985) while a bill requiring insurance carriers to cover alcohol and drug abuse problems was just as strongly supported (1985). A 1986 proposal by Assemblyman Frank Barbaro to fund five occupational health clinics around the state was wholeheartedly endorsed as was federal legislation to halt plant closings and runaway shops (1987).

The 1990s brought renewed hope for universal health care, continued resistance to destructive trade policies, and heightened awareness of and opposition to the threats of privatization and outsourcing. The 1996 loss of the Community Home Health Agency, which CSEA tried unsuccessfully to defend, and concerns about the privatization of other county services and postal operations brought members of the RLC to rallies sponsored by the affected unions. Passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (1993), significant bills on labor’s agenda, was offset by the economic damage done by the passage of NAFTA (1993), which the RLC and its Labor Committee on Central America had campaigned against. On the local legislative front, the RLC worked with a coalition of religious and community groups to initiate a campaign for a Living Wage ordinance, which was approved by City Council in 2001.

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demonstraters against NAFTA
Anti-globalization rally, 1993, photo by Marilyn Anderson