Building a Labor Movement Bond

The Union Leadership Institute prepares people moving up in organized labor in New York state.
The Union Leadership Institute Class of 2019
Thursday, August 1, 2019

When the latest class of the New York State AFL-CIO/Cornell Union Leadership Institute graduated on Friday, it was addressed by one of its own as Maritza Silva-Farrell took to the podium in the Statler Hotel ballroom to encourage the 25 leaders to “build collective power between workers and communities in order to fight for the freedom of our people.”

Friday’s graduation was the culmination of an intensive one-year executive-level training program for union leaders and top staff. The Union Leadership Institute, the Worker Institute’s flagship labor leadership program, prepares New York’s union leaders to more effectively and strategically tackle  challenges facing the labor movement. 

According to 2016 Union Leadership Institute graduate Silva-Farrell, executive director at ALIGN, those challenges range from the dismantling of workers’ protections, to the rise of white nationalism, to the divestment of critical social safety nets and environmental programs.  

“We're experiencing, probably, the most horrifying moments of our lifetime,” Silva-Farrrell said. “All of this is happening to our communities while corporations are enjoying massive tax cuts and have little to no regulations ... Our democracy, our country, our communities, our workers, our future, depends on what decisions we make today and as leaders.

“Our leadership must show up with a clear vision of what we are up against and seeing our real enemies, rather than fight each other over crumbs ... If we could actually get all on the same team, we might have a chance of winning.”

Getting union leaders to work together is one of the main goals of the institute, according to Patricia Campos-Medina ’96, MS ’97, co-director of the program, known as ULI.  

“The triumph of ULI is that leaders come together from different industries and different unions and they build relationships and they build a bond,” Campos-Medina said. “Our goal is to create a common language and a common vision for what the labor movement in New York and in the region ought to be fighting for. We have been able to achieve some connections between leaders and we're seeing that commonality in understanding what we need to do.”

The curriculum has three components – residential seminars, individual projects and electives taught by Cornell faculty – and carries 12 undergraduate credits. 

The residential seminars consist of a series of six topical presentations covering leadership and managerial skills, and tackling economic, political and social questions. Seminars are coordinated by Cornell ILR faculty and are held either on the Ithaca campus or at other locations around New York state and New York City.

For individual projects, participants work under faculty direction to develop innovative programs and activities to strengthen their organization for political action, organizing and collective bargaining.

The elective portion of the curriculum allows participants to customize their own leadership development plans by choosing additional courses, workshops or seminars on such topics as public speaking, collective bargaining, financial management, grievance handling and arbitration. 
 
“We are an executive training program for busy labor leaders that have a lot of demands on their time,” Campos-Medina said. “So, it's hard sometimes to take them out of their busy lives and demands and immerse them here into this program. 

“But, this program symbolizes what the ILR School is all about. It's about studying and advancing research in the world of work and the world of workers, and these union leaders are the practitioners. These are the leaders who are out there fighting to protect our labor laws and make them better. So, to mix the academic research and the practice, and to be able to provide them with the skills they need to train others and see themselves as leaders that can pass on the knowledge – that makes this program very unique. And, it’s housed in the right school because this is what we do.”