Labor Takes the High Road in Buffalo

John Sullivan Baker
July 12, 2018
John Sullivan Baker

My name is John Sullivan Baker, I’m from Toledo, Ohio, and I’ve been working for the Partnership for the Public Good, a community-based think tank that partners with nearly 300 community organizations to advocate for evidence-based public policy intended to make Buffalo more prosperous and socially equitable.


My main assignment has been to interview community leaders for Labor Takes the High Road, a forthcoming PPG study of labor unions’ impact on Western New York, a union-dense region with a rich industrial heritage. My interviewees--among whom are a prominent labor attorney, the publisher of a labor newspaper, a state senator, and Erie County’s commissioner of personnel--engage closely with organized labor but are not labor leaders themselves.  Their  distinct windows onto the labor movement enabled them to provide me a wealth of knowledge about topics as diverse as unions’ philanthropic efforts, labor’s environmental activism, the movement’s empowerment of otherwise-voiceless workers, and so much more.


My interviewees have also reflected on the challenges and opportunities unions face at this pivotal moment in history. We’ve discussed the implications of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, which allows public employees represented by unions to opt out of paying the dues that support unions’ collective bargaining efforts on their behalf; the American public’s largely favorable view of unions; West Virginia teachers’ strike for better pay and increased support for schools; the fact that negative narratives about unions often drown out positive narratives; and myriad other subjects.


I particularly enjoyed sitting down with my latest interviewee, New York State Assemblyman Sean Ryan. Though I’d prepared a series of questions about labor in Western New York, our meeting quickly ceased to be an interview and soon became an informal conversation about subjects as wide-ranging as the role of labor in the American economy, our shift from the class-based politics of the New Deal era to the identity-centric politics of the present day, the economic and social history of Buffalo, and racial dynamics in urban and suburban areas. I was struck by the fact that he, a prominent community leader without much free time on his hands, spoke with me at length as if I were a friend. Going into the meeting, I expected that he would rush the interview, and only stay as long as was necessary to give PPG, an organization with which he works closely, the information that its executive director sought, Instead, he let me pick his brain about subjects far outside of the scope of PPG’s study, treated me as an equal, and showed genuine interest in what I had to say, even going so far as to push back a later meeting to continue our conversation, which lasted for over an hour. 


This conversation has given me a great deal to reflect on, and I'm grateful that my High Road Fellowship has provided me the opportunity to meaningfully engage with both interviewees like Assemblyman Ryan and the community leaders who speak with us every Friday about progressive education policy, workforce training, historical restoration, economic development, and other critical elements of Buffalo's renaissance. 


Along with conducting interviews, I’ve spent time observing arraignment hearings in Buffalo City Court. A few months ago, the district attorney pledged that his office would stop requesting money bail, which places a major burden on low-income defendants and communities, in misdemeanor cases.  PPG was instrumental in persuading the DA’s office to make the pledge, but my supervisors now seek to verify whether the DA’s promise has been kept. Several other interns and I record the defendants’ charges (when the judge chooses to announce them, of course), the amount and type of bail or bond--if any--that the prosecution requests, the defendants’ perceived race, and several other details about the people brought into each arraignment hearing. Our reporting doesn’t just allow PPG and the community at large to know whether the district attorney is keeping his word; it also provides insight into the way in which the court system imposes bail across the board.  I’m proud to be participating in “bail watch,” as we call it, because I know that my work enables Buffalonians to hold their government accountable.