BUFFALO, N.Y. ― Aside from elected officials, a spoken-word poet, and a former candidate for governor, the only speakers at Democratic mayoral nominee India Walton’s mayoral campaign rally in downtown Buffalo, New York, on Saturday were labor union officials and activists.
Walton’s message was clear: As the only unabashed critic of corporate power at City Hall in the running for the top job, she was the true ally of organized labor in the Nov. 2 election.
“This is our city. We are the workers. We do the work,” declared Walton, a registered nurse and former union member. “We are sick and tired of those that have the most always getting everything.”
A few hours later, Mayor Byron Brown, a moderate who lost to Walton in the Democratic primary in June and is running a well-funded write-in campaign against her, laid his claim to the union mantle.
Flanked by union members atop the bed of a truck parked in a vacant lot on Buffalo’s East Side, Brown singled out organized labor for gratitude that he accorded to none of his other allies.
“I want to thank organized labor that has stood so strong with me,” he said, ticking off a list of union members’ contributions that included door knocking, phone calls and literature distribution on his behalf.
“The actual functional structure of unions in the United States is that they represent the interests of their members as they see it.”
The competition between Brown and Walton over who is a greater friend to organized labor is lopsided: The Western New York Area Labor Federation and the lion’s share of individual unions that have gotten in the race ― from unions representing city and state employees to manufacturing workers and building tradespeople ― are backing Brown.
Still, a handful of more progressive unions’ decisions to get behind Walton, and her own forceful case that she would be a more pro-labor chief executive, speak to a divide within the labor movement that has echoes in elections across the country.
As unions strategize ways to maintain their numbers at a time of historically low union membership in the United States, they have conflicting impulses about whether to play it safe or engage in what many union officials see as a high-risk, high-reward strategy.
“Fundamentally, despite what we want to think about unions as the vanguard of the working class and leaning toward radical change, the actual functional structure of unions in the United States is that they represent the interests of their members as they see it,” said Erik Loomis, a University of Rhode Island historian of the U.S. labor movement and author of the book “A History of America in Ten Strikes.”
“For a lot of unions, their interests, at least as perceived by the workers themselves and by their leaders, are not necessarily that radical,” Loomis said.
At the same time, a contingent of more progressive labor unions has adopted at least some of the anti-establishment politics of the activist left.
Since winning the primary, Walton has picked up the support of the New York State Nurses Association and Upstate Workers United, as well as local chapters of the United Food and Commercial Workers and the stagehands union IATSE.
Progressive strategist Eddie Vale, who has worked closely with unions, characterized the breakdown of union support between the two candidates as “your pretty typical split of where you would expect folks to be on the more traditional incumbent side versus more progressive challenger side.”
“The strategic divide is ... between those who think it’s best to be focused more on ‘now’ ― who will get most jobs, best benefits ― and those who think we also need to have more focus on a longer term strategy of building power, changing the game,” Vale said.
Especially in states like New York where unions enjoy bipartisan support and retain levels of membership and influence that are the envy of their counterparts in other states, unions are often loath to take any steps that they believe could jeopardize existing power. Even in the Buffalo metropolitan area, where the decline of manufacturing has devastated organized labor, over 20% of the working population belongs to a union ― nearly twice the rate of the country as a whole.
In such an environment, a union breaking with an incumbent Democrat in a general election ― to say nothing of a Democratic primary ― is highly unusual.
“You have these power centers in the union movement that have been built up over decades now,” Loomis said. “There’s not that many of them left in the United States, so if anything, union leaders in these places are going to be even less willing to take risks than they were in the past.”
That kind of political cautiousness is especially apparent in the Buffalo Teachers Federation’s change of heart about Walton. The city’s teachers union found Walton’s opposition to charter schools appealing enough to endorse her in the primary. But BTF President Phil Rumore told the Buffalo News on Friday that endorsing Walton in the general election “would be too divisive” among its members. (Rumore did not respond to HuffPost’s request for clarification of his remarks or additional details about the decision.)
While the mayor does not have direct control over Buffalo’s public school district, the teachers union may still be hedging its bets in the event of a Brown victory, Loomis ventured.
“I suspect a lot of it is fear,” Loomis said.
“You can drive through the city of Buffalo and see the improvement in the city, the investment in the city.”
At the municipal level, unions sometimes don’t even see eye to eye with progressives who are critical of corporate tax breaks and other giveaways designed to spur investment.
Under the leadership of business-friendly Democrats, struggling post-industrial cities like Buffalo have relied on attracting private real-estate development to grow their property tax base, which in turn enables them to negotiate more generous contracts with unionized public employees.
Peter DeJesus, a former factory worker and president of the Western New York Area Labor Federation, credits Brown for negotiating strong collective bargaining agreements with public-sector workers, avoiding public-sector layoffs during the COVID-19 pandemic, and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour for city employees and employees of companies that do business with the city.
“You can drive through the city of Buffalo and see the improvement in the city, the investment in the city,” DeJesus said of Brown’s tenure.
Under DeJesus’s guidance, the regional labor federation is employing a large member-to-member education program in support of Brown’s candidacy. DeJesus, who spoke at Brown’s march-to-the-polls event on Saturday, has also been a ubiquitous surrogate for Brown in the media.
For example, DeJesus has been spreading the word about the lack of a union “bug,” or marker, indicating the use of union labor, on Walton’s campaign literature.
The Walton campaign said that its printing vendor, Keller Brothers and Miller, is a union shop ― the company website says as much ― but that union workers there lack a current collective bargaining agreement and are still working under its old contract. The union representing the printing workers normally doesn’t permit the “bug” to be used in cases where an updated CBA is not in place, according to the Walton campaign.
But Steve Nobles, the secretary-treasurer of the Graphic Communications Conference, the Teamsters union’s printing arm, told HuffPost that Keller Brothers and Miller has not been a union shop in years. He plans to have the union issue a cease-and-desist letter to the company for claiming it is still unionized.
But DeJesus’ concerns about Walton go beyond what might be narrowly defined as union issues. He worries about Walton’s lack of experience in government and positions on some hot-button issues.
Union members in Buffalo, much like the population of Buffalo as a whole, skew moderate and are wary of changes like Walton’s plan to reallocate some police funding to poverty prevention programs, according to the labor federation president.
“This is a blue-collar town,” he said. “They’re not there yet when it comes to some of her ideas.”
The members of the unions backing Walton don’t see it that way. Mark Manna, Western area director for UFCW Local One and a speaker at the Walton rally on Saturday, told HuffPost that the Local endorsed Walton based on conversations with its 1,200 members in the city of Buffalo who preferred her to Brown.
“They wanted a mayor that reflected their working-class values,” Manna said, citing Walton’s background as a former union nurse and her more outspoken style of labor and community activism. “She walks the walk.”
The support that Brown has picked up from many of Buffalo’s business leaders, Republican donors, and even the state Republican Party, only strengthens the case for Walton, according to Manna.
“Those are anti-worker, anti-union dollars,” he said.
The most illustrative union endorsement that Walton has received, however, is from Upstate Workers United, the SEIU affiliate behind Starbucks Workers United ― a union formed by workers at a handful of Starbucks locations in and around Buffalo.
Walton and her team see the divergence between her and Brown’s response to the potentially groundbreaking union drive as a case study of their different brands of pro-union governance.
In an effort to thwart the unionization effort, Starbucks has, among other things, inundated its Buffalo-area stores with executives from headquarters, conducted closed-door anti-union meetings and sought to expand the pool of workers who would participate in a federally supervised union vote to include employees at Buffalo locations that have not filed for recognition.
“My message to Starbucks would be: ‘Union busting is disgusting.'”
From the start ― weeks before the Starbucks workers decided to endorse her ― Walton has addressed herself to Starbucks directly, calling on the Seattle-based company to “follow the lead” of the unionized regional chain Spot Coffee.
Asked in an interview last Thursday how she would use her bully pulpit as mayor to try to get Starbucks not to intervene in the workers’ unionization efforts, Walton told HuffPost, “My message to Starbucks would be: ‘Union busting is disgusting.’”
“I will be encouraging Starbucks leadership to allow the vote to take place and not interfere,” she added.
Brown, by contrast, has refrained from appealing to the company’s leadership to recognize the union.
“Unions play an important role in ensuring fair pay and favorable conditions for workers,” he tweeted in August. “Congratulations Starbucks Workers United on your partnership.”
HuffPost asked the Brown campaign whether he had a direct response to reports of Starbucks’ union busting tactics. The campaign provided a general statement about Brown’s support for unions, noting Brown’s role as chair of New York’s fast-food wage board that recommended raising the industry’s minimum wage to $15 in 2015.
“Mayor Byron W. Brown has always supported organized labor and the right to unionize,” the Brown campaign said in a statement. “That is why he has the overwhelming support and endorsement of the majority of labor unions across the City of Buffalo.”
To union officials and activists backing Walton though, Brown’s unconfrontational rhetoric about the Starbucks fight is typical of his approach to organized labor throughout his nearly 16-year tenure. Brown is only willing to stand up for unions when it doesn’t conflict with his desire to mollify big business, these critics charge.
In 2011, when BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York locked out its unionized clerical workers during a contract dispute, Brown did virtually nothing to express support for the workers, wrote Deana Fox, a former Buffalo union official, in a Facebook post on Monday. Acting independent of Brown, the Buffalo Common Council helped end the impasse by temporarily delaying the renewal of a city contract with the insurance company, according to Fox.
“Buffalo is a union town, despite Byron Brown,” she wrote.
Asked about Fox’s comments, the Brown campaign issued a statement from Brown touting his union support.
“I’m very proud to have received the overwhelming support of labor in WNY including the recent endorsement of the AFL-CIO and their 150,000 members,” he said. “I’m honored to have received their endorsement after they thoroughly reviewed the qualifications of both candidates.”
Walton and her allies’ efforts to paint Brown as an unreliable ally to organized labor have occasionally come up against the reality of his deep union ties.
Unfortunately for Walton, however, the union representing the striking workers ― Communication Workers of America Local 1133 ― is backing Brown.
At the union’s picket line outside the hospital in South Buffalo on Friday, Giovanna DiGesare, a spokesperson for the striking workers who lives in the suburbs, had nothing critical to say about Brown’s response to the strike.
“He’s been here. He’s definitely shown some support,” DiGesare said.
Asked about Walton, DiGesare said, “She’s been here quite a bit as well.”