From a recent demonstration outside Ingersoll Rand in Cheektowaga. 
From a recent demonstration outside Ingersoll Rand in Cheektowaga. 

The Parade is Coming: Labor Day Interview with Richard Lipsitz

by / Sep. 5, 2015 9am EST

In advance of the Labor Day and the annual parade down Abbott Road from the Irish Center to Cazenovia Park, Western New York Area Labor Federation President Richard Lipsitz Jr. sat down with the Public to discuss what Labor Day means and to highlight current labor struggles. 

Labor seems like one of those rare things you can talk about where the local issues mirror global issues. As you reflect on the challenges and progress of the labor movement, what are its largest obstacles?

Largest obstacle is this country is the right wing of the Republican party and the multi-millionaire and multi-billionaires who stand behind it, that’s a formdiable obstacle to an organization like ours which is committed to defending the working conditions and living standards of ordinary working class people. Most of them make their living one way or the other, off of money that is provided to them by the 1 percent. Unfortunately not enough of that money is being freed up to provide for a living standard which keeps lots and lots of people out of poverty. That’s really the big challenge. It’s an economic obstacle in the sense that too much money is going to too few people and it’s political in the sense that in order to overcome that, you have to wage economic struggle and political struggle simultaneously. And you also have to be active on social issues. It’s a big task.

What are its greatest advantages?

We do not have the advantage of a large percentage of the working class as dues-paying members of labor unions. The percentage has shrunk over the last 50 years. Where we do have the advantage is having the core of a very committed organization which has an impact well beyond their own numbers. In areas where there are high levels of unionization, wages and benefits for almost everyone is higher than areas where there are low levels of unionization. Best example is to just compare Mississippi to New York. New York has about a 22-23 percent unionization (Buffalo’s is actually 23-24), Mississippi is probably three or four percent. I think Mississippi’s the poorest state in the country, when you add everything together, and I think New York is not. When workers are organized into coherent groups with a mission and clear vision and leadership to carry out strategic, tactical moves in order to obtain certain objectives, you can fight! Short of that, everyone is on their own. The advantage we have is organization, but it’s not the advantage it could be, and it’s not the advantage it once was.

Labor Day Parade on Main Street, circa 1900 (from Wikimedia Commons).

The workers at Ingersoll Rand have been on strike for almost a month, tens of thousands of Verizon workers are on the brink of a strike, the Buffalo Teacher’s Federation is entering its 13th year without a contract. Are there any other local issues we should get caught up on?

There’s a lockout in Lockport, at ATI, it’s a steelworker location. It’s a national lockout, they’re holding pickets and demonstrations out in front of that plant. We just had one Wednesday this week where we drew 150-200 people. There’s a contract negotiation going on at St. Joseph Hospital, I don’t have anything to report on that. It’s a pretty big group, though, several hundred people. There are a series of labor struggles taking place within earshot, all of them have significance, these are major employers in Western New York.

You weren’t always a labor organizer, was Labor Day always special to you or was there a period in your life when it took on a special significance? 

Actually I’ve done labor work since I’ve been a grown man. Labor day is an intersting event. It was set up as a parallel holiday to International Worker’s Day, almost as a counter to it. International Workers Day being seen as too radical, too left wing, too socialist. Over the decade that has faded. Tbis year we celebrated both in Buffalo. International Workers Day being a celebration of the struggle for the 8-hour day back in the 1880s. Labor Day is a little different, it’s much more of a national holiday to celebrate work and working people. At the time it was formed, I don’t know how much they knew about labor, or how many labor union leaders were involved in the founding of Labor Day, I can’t tell you that. I can tell you it has a different feel. It’s much more of a holiday, a day where you kick back, picnics, parades…

Where most people don’t observe the reason for the holiday much like other American holidays?

I wouldn’t say that. I think there’s a fairly high understanding, at least in this rtegion, that this is a day when working people are acknowledged for production, for loyalty, for being the backbone of any economy. If you stop and think about it, nothing gets produced except by oridnary working people. It isn’t actually produced by money; it’s produced by people doing work. I think there’s a fairly high understanding that Labor Day is day when we celebrate there and around Western New York? There’s no question.  

The parade will occur on Abbott Road in South Buffalo between the Irish Center and Cazenovia Park on Labor Day at 1pm.