Op-Ed: Moving forward with unionized labor

Senator Sean M. Ryan

Originally published in Ken-Ton Bee

Last week’s local news was dominated by stories of workers negotiating new contracts with major local employers. We heard updates on negotiations, as unions representing Buffalo’s teachers and health care workers at Kaleida hospitals all continued their fight for better working conditions and adequate pay.

The current negotiations are just a small sample of the organized labor efforts across our region in the last year. Mercy Hospital workers went on strike for 35 days last fall in search of a fair contract. Western New York received national attention when local workers voted to form the first-ever Starbucks union in December, which launched a movement that has swept the nation. At the same time, NFTA drivers and mechanics negotiated a new contract earlier this year, and Geico workers in Amherst are beginning to organize now.

Our region has become a hotbed of union activity. And after many years of declining labor union participation in America, 2022 has brought a resurgence of organizing efforts across the country. So why now?

One factor is that the pandemic highlighted understaffing and unsafe working conditions. Consider our country’s essential workers: health care workers, first responders, educators, and members of the manufacturing and service industries. Even as the world lauded these workers as heroes, many companies continued to treat them as if they were disposable. As a result, many of those workers began to reassess their value as employees and to the larger system.

Rising inflation has been another cause of the burgeoning labor movement. Last month, I wrote about how the Inflation Reduction Act is helping relieve some of the economic effects of inflation we have witnessed over the last year. But when inflation was on the upswing, workers who had experienced years of wage stagnation found they had less spending power than they used to. That was a key point in the NFTA workers’ fight for a new contract, which netted drivers and mechanics a 15.25% raise over three years.

Unions built the middle class in America, and they are responsible for many of the rights workers enjoy today. There is no doubt that their decades-long decline has contributed to our country’s worsening inequality; nor is it a coincidence that for years, workers across the United States have been largely underappreciated by the large corporations that employ them. But things are changing – the recent rise in union activity has coincided with growing support for the labor movement. President Biden has vowed to be the most pro-union president in history, and a recent Gallup poll found that public support for labor unions is at its highest level since 1965.

Everyone deserves a good-paying job, and everyone deserves safety and dignity in the workplace. From the NFTA bus drivers to our local teachers, health care workers, and restaurant workers who greet us every day, these are the people who kept Western New York running during the worst of the pandemic. Unions work every day to fight for better working conditions, and it should be no surprise that efforts to organize and support better working conditions are moving forward here in New York and across the country.