Bringing the Labor Movement Back Home

July 24, 2018
Hannah Lorenc

Sitting down at my wooden desk at the WNY Area Labor Federation, surrounded by posters exclaiming “Stop the War on Workers” and “Good Jobs for America Now,” soundtracked by EDM music from the gym across the hall, I begin to reflect on my first month as an intern at the WNY ALF. 


I’m from Jamestown, which is only a 1.5-hour drive to my office in Buffalo, so I never got the question the others did—“Why Buffalo, of all places?” While others answer that question with complicated answers, usually containing their hopes to revitalize a “dying economy” and plans to experience a side of society they have never been exposed to for personal development, I couldn’t say the same; other students wanted to expose themselves to the rougher parts of a city with a history of economic destitution, but I grew up in a rust belt city that mimics Buffalo in all the ways that count—poverty rates, segregation, and gentrification—so it wasn’t a question of exposure for me. I knew my answer would be simpler: I wanted to be close to home for my last summer before graduation. Sure, it helped that I got my first choice placement with the labor federation, and I could fill my altruistic aspirations by being employed at a nonprofit working towards the public good. It certainly didn’t hurt that my coursework at ILR fed directly into the main project I’d be working on, but my justification for choosing the high road was almost entirely selfish. 


Don’t let my reasoning for choosing the High Road fellowship fool you—I knew it was an esteemed, highly regarded program in the Western New York Area that provides its fellows with an unmatched opportunity to dive into the nonprofit sector of a regenerating city to produce real change. Nevertheless, I expected a summer similar to my previous internship experiences—working, sometimes in a clerical role, on the day to day tasks of the organization. But when I was given my first assignment and introduced to my project this summer, I was quickly proven wrong. 


In conjunction with another high roader, a master’s student from the University of Buffalo, and the Executive Director of the Partnership for the Public Good, the study I’m working on will document the ways that unions benefit their members, non-union workers, and the WNY community. The work requires me to interview various leaders in the labor movement, which has exposed me to the grassroots production that goes into the labor movement.


This experience of working on the labor project has been instrumental in guiding my career path. I’m gaining both the connections within and knowledge about the field I plan to be entrenched in after my graduation. I’ve shadowed various union representatives in collective bargainings and mediations and have received career and life advice from people who I now am grateful to consider my mentors.


My coursework in ILR directly feeds into my work here in Buffalo. I am able to develop a keen understanding of the economics that surround union issues—including minimum wage, pensions, and inflation—because of my economics courses. I have declared an unofficial concentration in conflict resolution, which has aided my understanding of union grievance procedure and collective bargaining. 


Buffalo is constantly developing, and so am I. I’m humbled to be afforded the opportunity to dig my stake into this city and work with activists to help it grow, just as I grow. Buffalo is a part of my hometown and may very well be where I settle after I leave Cornell, so I am privileged to make impactful changes to the state of the city that I consider home.