Buffalo hosts Newspaper Guild event: Legendary folk singer Pete Seeger makes a surprise visit

Legendary folk singer Pete Seeger stopped by the Great Lakes-Midwest Joint Council Meeting in Buffalo on Nov. 9. Photo by David Carson.
Legendary folk singer Pete Seeger stopped by the Great Lakes-Midwest Joint Council Meeting in Buffalo on Nov. 9. Photo by David Carson.

The 40 participants at the Great Lakes-Midwest Joint Council Meeting in Buffalo this month received a jolt when a surprise guest visited during a special Guild program.

The weekend meeting, which included union members from Erie, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and St. Louis, was interrupted Nov. 9 by an appearance from legendary folk singer Pete Seeger, who was in Buffalo for a performance to benefit the Western New York Peace Center.

The 94-year-old walked into the conference room at the Hampton Inn, stepped onto a chair and proceeded to sing, a cappella, the satirical “Newspapermen Meet Such Interesting People,” and later shared with the group his early aspirations toward a career in journalism.

When local folk singer Phil Knoerzer, who performed at the special Guild program, shared with Seeger that he had earlier in the day sang a song by folk icon Woody Guthrie called “Union Maid,” Seeger responded: “I was with Woody when he wrote that song.” We looked it up and, indeed, it occurred in June 1940 – a mere 73 years ago.

A Guild program during the meeting focused on whether the labor movement can get back on track and, if so, where the Newspaper Guild fits into the solution.

Poor economic conditions, corporate lobbying and political opposition have eroded bargaining and organizing rights. As unions have lost power, wages and benefits have stagnated or declined. Moreover, there are fewer dues-paying union members to maintain a robust labor movement.

The current thinking is that unions can boost membership and clout by reaching out to non-union workers and forming alliances with like-minded non-union groups.

Larry Cohen, head of CWA, talks about building a movement for democracy and economic justice. He wants CWA to fight for such issues as campaign finance reform and universal voter registration.

Bernie Lunzer, president of The Newspaper Guild-CWA and one of six speakers at the Guild program, echoed those thoughts. Only by winning these battles, he and others say, can labor make a comeback.

Presuming this is an effective strategy, participants at the meeting hosted by The Buffalo Newspaper Guild discussed how we in The Guild can contribute without violating a journalist’s ethic to be objective.

“What we’re seeing in the U.S. is a clash of two competing employment systems – union vs. non-union,” said Howard Stanger, who also spoke at the program Stanger, a Canisius College professor who wrote about “Hard Bargaining in Hard Times” in the newspaper industry in the forthcoming book Collective Bargaining Under Duress, said that what’s at stake is who will set the terms of work – unions or low-wage companies like Wal-Mart or their equivalent in the newspaper industry.

The problem for unions, he and others stressed, is that collective bargaining is no longer sufficient to maintain, let alone improve, wages and benefits. Unions must find new ways to further the interests of workers, they said.

Participants heard from four other speakers who examined labor’s call for movement-building from different perspectives, and also engaged in a discussion moderated by TNG staff representative Marian Needham.

The other speakers were Shannon Duffy, business representative of the United Media Guild in St. Louis, Mo., whose mobilizing includes reaching out to the faith community; Grace Catania, unit chairperson of the Cook County Court interpreters at the Chicago Newspaper Guild, a leader in efforts in the Guild to organize interpreters; Richard Furlong, a Buffalo labor lawyer disturbed by government actions to chill the flow of information to reporters on issues of public interest; and Richard Lipsitz, president of the Western New York Area Labor Federation.

The program also included video, art, poetry and music as a reminder that unions once won people over by also winning their hearts and minds.