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March 2013

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Niagara Falls Local Packs Political Punch

Long before Niagara Falls, N.Y., was a popular tourist destination, inexpensive hydroelectric power from the powerful Niagara River thundering over its legendary waterfalls sustained a major concentration of industry, an expanding middle class and hundreds of jobs for members of Local 237.

With the decline of western New York's industrial base, Niagara Falls and Local 237, founded in 1914, have seen some hard times. More than 26 percent of the city's residents have incomes below the poverty level. The region's unemployment rate averages more than 7 percent. In 2010, Bloomberg News carried a story entitled "The Fall of Niagara Falls" that juxtaposed the city's empty factories with the swanky hotel-casinos serving tourists just across the border in Canada.

Local 237 Business Manager Russell Quarantello doesn't think the decline of Niagara Falls' industrial base and its skilled work force is inevitable. He's never given up hope that organized labor can help to shape public policy and encourage the county's industrial development authority to ensure that any new projects on his side of the border — in industrial production, tourism or other quarters — use local workers and pay family-sustaining wages.

"Instead of sitting back and waiting for other people to make change, the members of Local 237 decided to get personally involved," says Quarantello, who serves on the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission.

He knows that delivering on hope for his city's economic renewal will necessitate moving his members and his community into action on the political front. He was arrested in August while protesting against a Canadian company that is using out-of-state, nonunion electricians to build a $430 million factory despite receiving $142 million in state funding for the construction.

"Watching companies bring in workers from out of town instead of investing in local workers and the tax base is a crazy system," said Richard Lipsitz, Western New York AFL-CIO Area Labor Federation president. "It just doesn't lead to the type of jobs we need."

Protests are important, says Quarantello. But building enduring political influence is a long climb that is achieved only by well-trained activists.

Josh Walker is one of those activists. A fourth-year inside wireman apprentice, Walker is one of 18 Local 237 members who serve on the Niagara County Democratic Committee. In October, the local's members and their allies in other unions helped elect a new party chairman, Nick Forster, a public employee union steward, to replace a leader who had distanced himself from organized labor.

"It's very encouraging to be involved on the political front. People in Niagara County are saying 'enough' of living in a depressed economy. They want incumbents out and fresh new minds coming in," says Walker, 30, president of the local's apprenticeship association.

He has registered fellow apprentices to vote, participated in hand-billing and phone banking in the last election cycle and is now considering running for a seat on the county legislature. He tells his fellow apprentices their job is "more than a tool pouch." He says, "If they are not motivated now, it will be a lot harder later on."

Tim Cantrell, a 20-year local member, joined the county Democratic committee after following reports of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich attacking unions.

"It was time to get off the sidelines and see what I could get involved in," says Cantrell. "We have IBEW members in every town in the county. When they get active, our voice gets heard. Today, more politicians give us a nod and recognize our contributions," he says.

Nick Forster, the newly-elected Niagara County Democratic Party chairman, says Local 237's efforts have been critical in "getting the Democrats and the unions back in sync."

"If we don't listen to labor and develop teamwork between the party and unions to push for local hiring and fight daily against the agenda of right-wing Republicans, our county will be left with only rich people and poor people in the end," Forster said.

Last November's election defeat of former U.S. Rep. Kathy Hochul (D), a labor-friendly legislator, offers important lessons, says Jim Briggs, president of the Niagara-Orleans Central Labor Council. A Republican-led state Legislature succeeded in gerrymandering Hochul's district, giving their party a 6 to 1 advantage in registered voters. But Hochul, who was the first Democrat to serve the district in 40 years, lost by a much smaller percentage.

"We made a statement that, regardless of demographics, organized labor was in the game," and Local 237 played an important role, says Briggs. "Russ Quarantello takes a lot of time to talk to his members and the community at large about how political involvement is key to their quality of life."

As Walker joins two other members considering runs for public office, he reflects upon the changes he has experienced since leaving the nonunion electrical sector and joining the apprenticeship. "I kind of grew up with the political stuff," says Walker, whose grandfather helped found the county's Conservative Party chapter and whose father, Dean Walker, is business manager of Niagara Falls Local 2104, representing workers at the New York Power Authority. By joining the union, Walker gained the support and constituency to deepen his activism.

The resident of Gasport, a rural hamlet, said being married to the daughter of a dairy farmer helps keep him familiar with the important issues facing his neighbors.

Always looking to seize on new opportunities, Quarantello is planning to step up efforts to rally more of the local union's retirees behind upcoming political campaigns, in support of the movement to demand local hiring in return for any public monies going to businesses and volunteering for community-based projects.

A recent letter to the editor of the Niagara Hub blog from Joseph Ruffolo, president and CEO of Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, thanks Local 237 for its "stunning" holiday lighting display and for work on the recent expansion of the center's surgical unit. "Not only do they do quality work," says Ruffolo, "they are good neighbors who consistently display their willingness to give back to our community."


Local 237 members work on Niagara Community Clean Sweep: Russ Quarantello, left, (business manager's son), Fred Dumais, Jack Jenkins, Keith Mitchell, Josh Walker, Jared Call and Chris Miles