Labor and Regional Development in the U.S.A.: Building a High Road Infrastructure in Buffalo, New York*

By Greer, Ian; Fleron, Lou Jean | International Journal of Action Research, August 31, 2005 | Go to article overview

Labor and Regional Development in the U.S.A.: Building a High Road Infrastructure in Buffalo, New York*


Greer, Ian, Fleron, Lou Jean, International Journal of Action Research


In a country where worker representatives lack broadly institutionalized roles as "social partners," how can they play a constructive role in solving the problems of regional development? In Buffalo, New York, regularized, labor-inclusive procedures of problem solving involving multiple coalition partners - what we call a high-road social infrastructure - has emerged. Socially engaged researchers and educators have played a role in spreading lessons and organizing dialogue. Despite the emergence of regional cooperation, however, successful development politics are hampered by many of the same problems seen in European regions, including uncertainty about the best union strategy, hostility from business and political elites and the enormity of the region's long-term structural problems.

Keywords: Coalition building, trade unions, Buffalo, New York, United States, university-community relations

Over the past decade, union-inclusive regional coalition building has become a major theme in North American and European labor research. As unions have created projects, coalitions and other organizational structures to take on local employment problems, they have moved beyond their traditional roles of in-firm worker representation and collective bargaining. These new partnerships involve direct action on local issues, including workforce development and training, public subsidies (sometimes including accountability rules), transportation and other infrastructure needs and investment, real estate development and urban sprawl. While the European literature has stressed the role of action researchers and dialogue (Fricke/Hofmaier 2004) and changes in economic structure (Doerre/Beese/Roettger 2002), the American literature has stressed changes in local union strategies (Reynolds 2002; Ness/Eimer 2001). Systematic transatlantic comparisons of these projects have yet to be made.

Despite certain commonalities, labor in the U.S. and Europe operate within different institutional frameworks. Sectoral pattern bargaining in most U.S. industries fell victim to global competition through the 1980s. Since then, unions have generally negotiated and organized on a workplace-by-workplace or firm-by-firm basis. Unionized employers face competition from a "nonunion" sector, where workers lack any collective representation. Far from the legally sanctioned forms of industrial citizenship seen in Europe, workers in nonunion establishments have little prospect of establishing workplace or sector-level representation. As a result, union density in the U.S. is 12.5%, well below most European countries, and dropping.1 The lack of a major socialist or labor party limits the possibilities for government intervention to compensate. Compared to broad union structures, worker rights in the firm, high union density and the political influence of European unions, U.S. unions should be relatively handicapped in regional dialogue.

U.S. unions, however, are having some success in building power and compensating for their traditional weakness. Studies of "union revitalization" have documented some of these success stories (Kelly and Frege 2004; Hurd, Milkman and Turner 2003). This paper describes one local effort to revitalize labor's local influence: a coalition of trade unionists, political figures, business people, educators, researchers and community groups in Buffalo, New York. In Buffalo, union leaders play a growing role tackling the region's chronic social, political and economic crises. With the help of educators and researchers, mostly based at Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR), they have brought labor, management, and other community groups together to deal with standard economic development issues, like worker training, improving the competitiveness of some of the region's largest employers and marketing the region. They have also organized successful campaigns to fight wage dumping in the public sector and helped create a union-driven economic development organization in the region. …

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