Labor Roundtable

Future movers and shakers discuss labor world with current leaders
Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Nineteen leaders in the United States labor and social justice movements, five of whom are ILR alumni, met with students on Friday, Nov. 18, for the Fourteenth Annual Labor Roundtable at Cornell’s Statler Hotel.

The Worker Institute-sponsored event provided an opportunity for students to engage in discussions with a broad cross-section of representatives from labor unions, worker advocacy groups and social justice organizations.

“Overall, we’re committed to advancing worker rights and collective representation, helping to give support and strengthen voices of workers, as well as enabling the voices of those who have been silenced,” said Ileen DeVault, academic director of The Worker Institute at Cornell and professor of Labor History.  

“I couldn’t help but find it ironic that the Statler Hotel has given us whole lemons on the water table, but they always say – ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade,’” she said in her welcoming remarks. “I think the labor leaders and social justice leaders and labor lawyers who are here to speak to you today have all had experience taking lemons and making them into lemonade.”

“This is what we all have to think about at this point, this particular historical moment, in the United States,” she concluded.

According to organizers, students gained exposure to current trends in the labor movement and the fundamental role that it plays in bringing about social change through small-group discussions with leaders from a wide-array of focuses in labor rights.

“I think that it’s an incredible event and really unique in its content, focus and scope,” said Alexandra Klein ’18 who co-coordinated the Roundtable.

“The fact that the event not only focuses on labor and social justice - rare in itself at Cornell, but also is entirely student run and driven - makes it an incredible event to be a part of and has always been a highlight of my time at Cornell.”

“It’s important to recognize that for different people this can mean vastly different things, ranging from the discovery of a cause or campaign they are fascinated by, an interest in going into a career path they hadn’t previously considered, or even at the most basic level, caring a bit more about causes they hadn’t previously put at the forefront of their minds,” Klein said.

From ILR alumni to labor leaders from across the country, all echoed a similar passion about their work and the future of the movement.

According to Wendy M. LaManque BSILR ’10, an associate at Cohen, Weiss and Simon LLP, which focuses on labor law, “Because I have drawn so much on my ILR education in my career as a labor lawyer, and have taken advantage of so many networking and educational opportunities sponsored by or in connection with ILR, it is both my pleasure and, as I see it, my duty to do whatever I can to give back.”

“Labor unions, when led by passionate individuals intent on realizing socioeconomic justice for their members, are exemplary of true democracy in action and serve as a model for how all social justice movements can achieve their goals,” LaManque said.

“I want ILR students to know that based on my time in the labor sector, I’ve found there is still nothing more powerful than people coming together and working collectively for their mutual benefit.”  

Another leader speaking to students was Greg Christiansen, Prison to Work program apprenticeship coordinator with the Iron Workers Local 86, who reiterated sentiments around the role labor is playing in impacting lives.

“We need to reach out and provide opportunities to people out there in ways that they wouldn’t normally get them,” Christiansen said. “Through the unions is one good way to do it because with unions, you get benefits and a livable wage.”

“It seems like students today want to be socially involved, which I’m really excited about,” he said. “The students I’m speaking with today are going to be the movers and shakers to help programs like Prison to Work exist and keep growing to offer more opportunities to people out there.”