Why Buffalo? A Reflection on the Labor Movement and Personal Success

2017 High Roaders Vanessa Roga and Hannah Sosenko at Silo City
October 04, 2017
Vanessa Roga

When my friends and family asked what I would be doing this summer and I explained that I would be working with labor unions in Buffalo, almost everyone had the same reaction, “Well, it sounds interesting, but what will you be doing there? And why Buffalo?” If I’m being honest, initially I didn’t have an answer for them.

However, as I approach the halfway point to this program, I couldn’t imagine spending my summer anywhere else. As someone with an interest in possibly pursuing a career in labor studies, my work this summer has allowed me to have a hands on experience in the field. The ILR School has provided me with the necessary information to understand the labor world and its workings. The courses I have taken have been a backbone for my understanding of the labor movement and have cultivated my interest in labor as a career. Yet, I feel as if I didn’t fully comprehend how labor unions functioned until I actually began working with them. My work with the Area Labor Federation of Western New York, AFL-CIO has opened my eyes to how unions function on a political, social, and economic basis. Just so far this summer I have attended protests for local causes, hosted a day full of interviews of those running for political positions in NYS and Erie County, met with the Commissioner of Labor for NYS regarding minimum wage, convened with the president of the national Coalition of Black Trade Unionists regarding a canvassing project against the Constitutional Convention, witnessed a union vote after contract negotiations, and so much more. Everyday I come into work there is a new project to be tackled and a new issue that needs the Area Labor Federation’s help. It not only keeps my work fresh and interesting, but also allows me to see the multi-faceted approach that the labor movement takes in their involvement and how many of their efforts have produced success.

Personally, the effect that this summer has had on me so far is twofold. First, I have seen significant growth within myself. This summer I have had to acclimate to living in an entirely new city, paying my own rent, figuring out my own travel plans, and making my own meals. The increased responsibility has transformed me into somewhat of a miniature adult for the summer and I have gained necessary life skills. I have also learned to become more confident in myself and the work that I’m doing. While initially very timid, I have begun to feel more comfortable reaching out to people and taking on larger assignments. Another fantastic perk of this program is that I get to interact with interesting and accomplished people who have helped me to explore my own interests and have given me insightful advice. Networking with everyone from the advisory committee to the Department of Labor representatives has taught me more about myself and the path I may take in the future.

Second, I have witnessed how transformative my efforts can be on contributing to growth within the community. Simply by going out and talking to different residents and laborers, I have seen how some of the issues in Buffalo affect them personally. I have seen how the transit system perpetuates inequality in the city, how racial issues persist in workplaces, and how the actions of corporations affect families. However, even more of what I have seen, is how active Buffalonians are in forming a better Buffalo. By attending the different rallies, labor meetings, and political action meetings, I have met endless people who are fully dedicated to doing whatever possible to solve the issues they recognize. Amongst the labor movement specifically, there is a community strength unlike anything I have seen before. People are willing to put in the time and effort to correct injustices in the city and it has truly inspired me. In addition to their activism, since the people themselves are the ones being affected by these issues, they are extraordinarily helpful in crafting creative solutions. They want to partner with larger organizations like the ALF to have a larger force and tackle these problems. For example, for my long term project this summer I am collecting demographic data on labor unions and comparing it to the demographic data of the different regions of Western NY to see how representative the unions are. Throughout my research, I have uncovered some concerns regarding the information I have collected. While I have discovered that most unions are fairly representative regarding their membership, I have gathered that for many unions, there is division amongst the member base and sometimes a lack of representation in union leadership. Both of these issues are detrimental to the effective functioning of successful union activities. However, when discussing these issues the union representatives also provided solutions that they are currently working on putting into place to counteract these problems. For instance a few of the unions are working on better communication efforts with their membership and asked the ALF for support and ideas on implementation. Every time I have encountered a problem, whether community or labor based while here in Buffalo, I have also encountered a dedicated team of people (often including myself and the WNY-ALF) committed to fixing it.

This summer I have had the opportunity to grow both professionally and personally. My days are spent building my own skills and helping to build a community. I am exploring my own career interests while also exploring the interests of those who are actively organizing. I hear people speak, united with one voice, as I learn more about myself and discover my own voice. So when I returned home for my mother’s birthday last week, I finally had an answer to the friends and family who asked me, “Why Buffalo?” It is because here in Buffalo, I am learning how to make successful and impactful changes not only in myself, but also in the lives of others.