Remarks of Bruce Popper at New York State Public Employees Federation Leadership Conference

New York State Public Employees Federation Leadership Conference
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York
March 31, 2017

Remarks of Bruce Popper  03.31.17 BP PEF Remarks PDF
Vice-president, 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East

The story of Rochester, New York

I live on the edge of Rochester, New York, one of the poorest cities in the United States of America.  Over 50 percent of our children live in poverty.  Violence and desperation grip many of our neighborhoods.  The public school system is overwhelmed by the conditions in which its students live.  40% of the county’s workforce is not self-sufficient, meaning that they need some form of outside assistance just to make ends meet.

It wasn’t always this way.  A generation ago, Rochester was an affluent community with household incomes well exceeding state and national averages.  This relative affluence was driven by major employers in manufacturing like Eastman Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch and Lomb, an older version of ‘high tech.’  There were over 10,000 unionized autoworkers at General Motors plants on the west side of the City, and 4,500 more union workers at Xerox on the east side of the county.

In the last two decades, however, Rochester’s manufacturing sector followed the trend of other ‘rust belt’ cities.  It disappeared as a significant source of employment.

Eastman Kodak, whose employment topped 60,000 in the mid-1980s, now has less than 2,000 local employees.  The United Autoworkers Union has less than 800 active members, and the union representing Xerox’s blue collar workers has more members in the hospitality and gaming sector than in manufacturing.

Throughout this dramatic change in employment, Rochester’s unemployment rate remained remarkably low because a similar number of jobs were being created in the service sector, primarily in health care, higher education, retail, financial services, call centers, and the like.  The problem for Rochester’s working families became not a lack of jobs, but a lack of good paying jobs.  The new jobs not only paid less than the manufacturing jobs they replaced, they had fewer benefits as well.

Let’s be clear about one point:  the manufacturing jobs paid more because they were highly unionized, or in Kodak’s case, competed for labor with unionized companies.

The state of twenty-first century Rochester’s economy and society was all but predicted in a 1995 research paper by Harvard Kennedy School student Stephen Brockelman titled “Corporate downsizing in Rochester, NY:  economic development responses and the transition from manufacturing.”  Brockelman demonstrated that Rochester’s higher standard of living was almost entirely driven by its the manufacturing sector, and that service sector wages were markedly below state and national averages.  By 1995, the handwriting was on the wall, manufacturing jobs were ending.  The principal fuel of the local standard of living would soon disappear.

Rochester’s governmental sector was relatively small when compared to places like neighboring Buffalo where public sector employment somewhat cushioned the blow of deindustrialization.

Brockelman called for a new version of high tech industry based on Rochester’s expertise in optics.  This dream has been pursued, without success ever since, the latest version being the expensive quest to make Rochester the nation’s photonics center.

In the meantime, parts of the City of Rochester deteriorated into conditions typical of third world countries in terms of infant mortality, nutrition, housing, crime, and educational performance.  Significant poverty has also emerged in some suburbs.

December, 2013 marked the awakening of Rochester’s elites to the catastrophe of local poverty with the publication of ACT Rochester’s report “Poverty and the Concentration of Poverty in the Nine-County Greater Rochester Area.”  The City of Rochester had become one of the poorest in the United States with an astronomical percentage of its children living in poverty.

The concentration of that poverty also had a racial dimension.  Minority workers were overrepresented in low wage occupations, and underrepresented in high wage ones.  Restrictive zoning laws enacted in suburban towns, backed by the 1975 U.S. Supreme Court decision Warth v. Seldin, coupled with not so subtle practices of housing discrimination, had concentrated the poor within city limits

In response to the ACT Rochester report, I published a guest editorial in the weekly City Newspaper titled “The Real Solution to Rochester’s Poverty.”  It began with a quote from Nelson Mandela:

“Poverty is not an accident.  Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.”

I wrote:

“Perhaps there is no place in which this insight is more true than Rochester, New York.  As community leaders discuss yet another exhaustive study of our region’s poverty, and how our city has become one of the poorest in America, a fundamental fact continues to be ignored:  that much of Rochester’s poverty has been quite deliberately engineered by employers and a hand full of law firms dedicated to crushing collective action by local workers.

“Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr.’s description of the poor to the 1988 Democratic National Convention is as true today as then:

“Most poor people are not lazy….Most poor people are not on welfare….They work hard every day.  They raise other people’s children.  They clean the streets.  They drive dangerous cabs.  They change the beds you slept in these hotels last night and can’t get a union contract….They work in hospitals.  They wipe the bodies of those who are sick with fever and pain.  They empty their bedpans.  They clean out their commodes.  No job is beneath them.”

“Most poor people are poor because the jobs they work do not pay enough to afford a decent standard of living.  As Rochester’s manufacturing jobs were replaced …, decent pay disappeared for the masses.  There are now tens of thousands of low paid home health aides, group home workers, janitors and maids, clerks and drivers who live within the City of Rochester.”

The fastest growing jobs in the Rochester Finger Lakes Region are registered nurse, home health aide, personal care assistant, child care worker, and groundskeeper; only one of which pays a self-sufficient wage.

In preparation for the editorial, I had surveyed the half dozen unions in the area (the building trades excepted because of their different function) who employ full time organizers dedicated to bringing in new members.  I found that nearly 4,000 workers had tried and failed to organize in the prior decade, either losing NLRB elections or achieving majorities without getting recognition.  Most of these organizing efforts took place among low wage workers who were disproportionately people of color.

I found that workers were not passively accepting poverty wages and poor working conditions.  They were fighting back, and trying to join our union movement for a better life for themselves and their families.

There had been a debate among my staff about whether I should use the phrase “that much of rochester’s poverty has been deliberately engineered.”  I said that we have to call it what it is; a multimillion dollar industry deployed to stop the union movement from extending into new occupations and sectors while its base was being depleted by deindustrialization.

Mandela was right.  Poverty is not an accident.  It is man made.  He was also right to say that it can be removed by the actions of human beings.

What I did not say in the article was that much of the blame for the failure of these workers to organize was the fault of the unions, including my own.  We promise gains similar to those in our remaining major union contracts – living wages, affordable health insurance, a pension, and the like – if workers join the union.  But we know that the chances of newly organized union members making these kind of gains is extremely unlikely.  We organize under a 1935 paradigm based on bargaining units – often pitting small groups of workers against large powerful employers, that is, in the few cases in which the workers actually win an election.  We rely on government enforcement of labor laws when that enforcement has become a cruel hoax.

There have been no significant, large scale, successful unionization campaigns in Rochester for many, many years.

Given the fact that unionization has been, by far and away, the most effective means to raise wages and reduce poverty, and given the fact that employers in Rochester have very effectively ended significant new worker organizing over the past several decades, staying with a collective bargaining model is simply suicidal and will result in a continuing increase in poverty, as well as rising disparities in income and wealth, all exacerbated by a system of structural racism.

I hold up Rochester as an example of the crisis that we find ourselves in as a movement.  Some variant of this story could be told about other Upstate New York cities, and many others across the nation:  deindustrialization, deunionization, declining standards of living, and concentrated poverty.

What do we stand for?

A number of years ago, I led a discussion among our Delegates on the question of “What do we stand for?”  They came up with this list:

All health care workers are entitled to:

• A voice on the job.

• A workplace that allows them to provide the best quality of care.

• A living wage.

• Health coverage for every member of their family.

• A secure retirement.

• The opportunity for training, education, and career development.

That’s a pretty good list.  It sounds a lot like something that we call the American Dream.  But fewer and fewer Americans enjoy anything close to this list anymore.  Unless you are rich or in a union, this list is indeed a dream.

Union membership in the United States has dropped to 10.7 % of the workforce; 6.4% in the private sector and 34.4% in the public sector.  Public sector union membership exceeded that of the private sector years ago.  One out of three union members is now in a teachers union.  That is true for our regions of  New York as well.  Over 75% of the membership in AFL-CIO area labor federations in Western New York are in the public sector.

Almost 90% of workers have nothing close to what our members often take for granted.

• They do not have rights at work.

• They often have no input on decisions affecting the quality of their service; they fear reprisal.

• They do not make a decent salary.  We are living through a 40 year wage freeze when adjusted for inflation;  while the bottom half of wage earners have seen an absolute decline.

• In spite of the efforts of the Obama administration, many do not have affordable health coverage.

• Most not only don’t have a pension, they don’t even have a 401(k) or any retirement savings.

• Education is no longer a guarantee of advancement as the U.S. has dropped to the bottom of advanced nations in the category of upward mobility.  Student loan debt now exceeds credit card debt.

All of these phenomena have one basic cause:  a well planned and well executed attack on working people to shift income and wealth to the richest segment of our society; what Occupy called the 1%.  To succeed in the plan to steal America’s wealth, the primary institution protecting working people, the union movement, must be crushed.

The most clear articulation of the plan  to do this is contained in a document called the “Powell Memo.”  I will not go into a lot of its details.  If you are not familiar with its contents, you should definitely look it up.  Suffice it to say that the memo laid out a strategy to change American values and ideology in favor of big business.  It called for transforming media and academic institutions, the founding of sympathetic ‘think tanks,’ and the spending of lots of money on friendly political candidates. It was authored in 1971 and we are reaping its awful benefits today.

Shortly after he authored the memo, Lewis Powell was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

One example of the memo’s success comes to mind.  Some years ago, I was among a small group of union leaders who met with the Congressman who now represents this district.  At that time, he was also my Congressman, Tom Reed.  When asked about how he made decisions about legislation, he responded that he followed a set of principles; they were:

Cutting taxes.
Cutting government spending.
Free trade.
And the “market” will take care of the rest.

He didn’t say ‘promote the general welfare.’  He didn’t say ‘insure a healthy citizenry.’  He didn’t say ‘guarantee a secure retirement’ or ‘provide a quality education’ or ‘promote equal opportunity.’  He said ‘cut taxes, cut government, engage in free trade, deregulate, privatize, and everything else will take care of itself.’

Well, I doubt that anyone in this room subscribes to that set of principles.  In fact, as leaders in the New York State Public Employees Federation, you have fought back against every one of those tenets.  I join you in that.

We don’t believe in the absurdity of supply side economics, and we don’t believe that the “market” will take care of those in need, of those with disabilities or disease, of the abandoned child, of the jobless, of the homeless, or even of the general public.

I once spoke at the University of Rochester’s William E. Simon School for Business Administration.  William E. Simon, who endowed the school, was Secretary of the Treasury in the Nixon Administration.  UR’s business school had close ties to the mecca of free market economics, the University of Chicago.  Simon, following the Powell Memo play book, invested a lot of money to keep the school bearing his name teaching right wing economics.  In the Q & A following my remarks, a student hostilely called me “a market distortion.”

I have proudly worn that label ever since.  My name tag reads:  “Bruce Popper, Union Organizer, Market Distortion.”

Damn right we are market distortions.  Some people would call that civilization.

So, we are the enemy of the lord god Adam Smith, his prophets Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, and all those who have come after.  We are the enemy of that ideology.  And like every other enemy, we must be destroyed.  Before Grover Norquist gets to drown government in a bath tub, he has to drown us first.  We are the guys with the life jackets.

The Right has done a pretty good job of killing our movement in the private sector.  All they had to do was stop us from organizing new workers over the last few decades through aggressive workplace tactics, hostile labor boards, and bad court cases.  What is left is mostly in the public sector.

The Right Wing attack on unions

Before we talk about where we need to go next, let’s do a short threat assessment.

U. S. Supreme Court.

In 2014, in Harris v. Quinn, the court invalidated dues and fair share fees as a condition of employment for over hundreds of thousands of unionized home health workers who were classified as ‘consumer directed’ and therefore employees of a state or county.  The 5-4 majority said that such a condition in a collective bargaining agreement amounted to government infringement on free speech rights under the First Amendment.  As a member of the board of directors of the New York Civil Liberties Union, I have never heard such an outrageous and absurd interpretation of the First Amendment in my life, that workers trying to form organizations for a better life was a violation of free speech!.

Most of these workers are women of color fighting to get out of or stay out of poverty.

In 2016, the court deadlocked 4-4, because of the death of Anton Scalia, in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association which would have extended the Harris v. Quinn prohibition of dues collection to all public employees.

In 2017, two dozen cases are waiting at in the lower courts on the same question.  A newly appointed Supreme Court justice will tip the balance, the likely outcome being a severe weakening of union finances.

Less identified as an attack on unions, but nonetheless with serious consequences for our ability to operate and win, has been the court’s decisions on campaign finances.  The Citizens United and McCutheon cases have unleashed the dogs of cash and further eroded our electoral democracy.  As a result, we are even more outgunned when it comes to campaign donations.


So-called right-to-work legislation to ban all union security clauses in collective bargaining agreements has been introduced.  It will certainly pass in the House.  A Democratic filibuster in the Senate is currently the only firewall against a national right-to-work law.

In a novel move against Federal employee unions, Representative Jody Hice (R-GA), chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has introduced a bill that would disqualify all work release hours used for union business, including labor-management meetings, from credited pension service.


The 2010 state level elections were a disaster for union members and other progressives.  2010 saw the emergence of the Tea Party and the loss of a huge number of state houses and legislatures to Right Wing candidates, and a purging of remaining Republican moderates.  Because 2010 was a census year, these elected officials got to draw Congressional district lines favorable to conservatives (read anti-union) that make it nearly inconceivable that we will have a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives until 2022.


When Ronald Reagan fired the PATCO strikers in 1981, he sent a message to all employers that it was open hunting season on union members.  He appointed anti-union officials to the NLRB, Labor Department, and Federal courts.  The government backed union busting.

The PATCO of our time is Wisconsin where, in 2011, in spite of massive protests, Governor Scott Walker managed to enact a series of draconian limits on the rights of Wisconsin’s public servants to bargain collectively and to enjoy benefits that they had negotiated over years.  Walker survived a recall vote, and got away with it.

One important lesson that we need to learn from Wisconsin was Walker’s very effective demagoguery on how public employees made more money than the average tax payer and have a pension which the typical tax payer lost a long time ago.

States (2)

28 states have already enacted right-to-work laws.  They used to be confined mostly to the former slave states and some western states, but with Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Kentucky  fallen since 2012, right-to-work agents are trying further crack the North.

Missouri recently just went down.  The resistance held in New Hampshire and New Mexico.

A whole variety of attacks on union member rights have appeared in the half of states that even allow public sector collective bargaining, including Florida and Connecticut.  A common symptom is the influence of Americans for Prosperity, founded and funded by the billionaire Koch brothers.

New York

For those who believe that ‘it can’t happen here’ in New York, the most unionized of all states, let me remind you that we are facing a referendum on whether to hold a constitutional convention.  Since delegates to such a convention are to be elected by state senate district, and those districts have been gerrymandered to heavily favor Republicans, the Right sees a golden opportunity to circumvent the governor and legislature, and to gut worker protections in that document.

We must resist this initiative with all our might.  We must talk with our members, and go way beyond them, to convince the public that we all have a huge amount to lose if a convention is called.  The other side is well financed and well organized.  So must we be.

Building a new union movement

So those are just some of the threats that we must address, but we can not win on defense.

Internal organizing

We start with ourselves and our members.  We must engage in literally thousands of one-on-one conversations within PEF.  Let’s go back to that list of what we stand for because I bet that almost every PEF member would agree with those values.  Some may be duped about how to achieve those goals.  Some may have only their self interest at heart.  But PEF members are public servants in the best sense of the words.  They will get it if we talk with them.

Find ways to involve the members in activities that focus on the big issues, not the petty gripes.

Political action

Political action is the lifeblood of a public sector union.  We have huge tasks in front of us, not the least of which is the constitutional convention referendum.  To win, we will need volunteer time and money.  Union members don’t just give to COPE for some abstract reason.  They give to win a fight that is in their interest.  We have several.  But we have to ask.

Every meeting that I have gone to in 2017 has greatly exceeded attendance and spirit than we expected.  The New York Civil Liberties Union alone has signed up 4,000 new volunteers since the 2016 election.  People are looking for something to do and they are donated in record numbers to organization that they perceive as opposing the Right Wing  agenda.

Advocate for the people we serve

Finally, I have done a lot of speaking and writing in the past few years about how we must radically change the way we do union business.  I have fought to create different forms of membership beyond collective bargaining.  I have practically screamed that we need to be talking to all workers, not just our members.  So, I am going issue you in PEF a challenge.  I think that in order to survive, in order to enjoy anything close to the benefits you now enjoy, you must become something quite different.  You must be serious about this change and divert major resources to it.

You must speak out for services to the disabled, the elderly, the sick.

You must fight for the unemployed and the injured worker.

You must become the most recognized protector of children.

You must fight for universal child care and quality day care.

You must stand for safe highways, bridges, and transportation.

You must be the voice of the disadvantaged and the poor.

Indeed, you must become the advocates of the American Dream for the people of the State of New York.

If you do this, you will not be seen as overpaid bureaucrats but as champions of the public interest.  You will not then be vulnerable to the Right’s demagoguery, and you will lead us back to an America of liberty and justice for all.

You are doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers, technologists, scientists, and so much more.  You know the facts.  You have the expertise and the skills.  This I challenge you to do.

I want to conclude by quoting SEIU’s David Rolf, an architect of the Fight for $15 and one of the most outspoken advocates of reengineering our union movement.  In January, 2015, he told a conference of union activists:

“Except in rooms like this, no one remembers the names of labor leaders from a hundred years ago.  Most Americans at one point, to pass high school civics, had to remember that Woodrow Wilson was our president a hundred years ago.  Most people could not name a U.S. senator, or a governor, a CEO, a popular entertainer, the most popular author.  No one knows any of that.  Most of us can’t remember who exactly is in our family tree going back that far….  Nobody is going to remember who any of us are here.  They will remember President Obama. They will not remember the names of anyone else in this room.  But people remember movements and they remember great moments of social change.  We remember Abolition.  We remember Temperance, Suffrage, Civil Rights, and Stonewall.  We will remember Immigrant Rights, and Marriage Equality.  So a hundred years from now, what people will remember is not any of us as leaders, not any of the institutions that we lead.  They will remember that when the American Dream was at her greatest level of risk, a handful of brave people had the courage to stand up and do something about it.  And that is exactly what we all need to commit to doing.”

One thought on “Remarks of Bruce Popper at New York State Public Employees Federation Leadership Conference

  1. This is a call to action for all who care about our future. I am the organizer for SMART Local 46 in Rochester. All labor unions need to band togeather and help one another regain the strength and pride that union membership once meant.

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