WORK! Exploring the future of work, labor and employment.

Revitalizing Buffalo

January 10, 2020 Cornell ILR School Season 1 Episode 4
WORK! Exploring the future of work, labor and employment.
Revitalizing Buffalo
Chapters
WORK! Exploring the future of work, labor and employment.
Revitalizing Buffalo
Jan 10, 2020 Season 1 Episode 4
Cornell ILR School

Over the past decade, the city of Buffalo has seen impressive growth, development and progress. Dean Alex Colvin and New York State Assemblyman Sean Ryan discuss the policy changes, and the ILR School’s role, in revitalizing the region.  

Show Notes Transcript

Over the past decade, the city of Buffalo has seen impressive growth, development and progress. Dean Alex Colvin and New York State Assemblyman Sean Ryan discuss the policy changes, and the ILR School’s role, in revitalizing the region.  

Diane Burton:

Work is all around us. It defines us and the future of work impacts nearly every person on our planet. The ILR school at Cornell university is at the center of work, labor and employment, influencing policy and practice on the most pressing issues facing employees and employers. ILR school Dean Alex Colvin is the host of our series "Work! Exploring the future of work, labor and employment," featuring discussion with experts on key world of work topics. In this episode, New York State assemblyman, Sean Ryan and Dean Colvin discuss the future of work in Buffalo.

Dean Colvin:

It strikes me that Buffalo is a place, you know, you see that enormous sweep of kind of American economic history, right? You know, when I've, when I go there, you know, I think back to, you know, when the Erie Canal, you know, came in and that kind of, you know, boom, the 19th century. And you know, I was just looking at a table of the 10 biggest American cities decade by decade, and there was a period when Buffalo was in there, right when Buffalo was the 10 biggest American cities and you know, sort of really booming through the 20th century. But then, you know, then got, then got hit, hit hard with the , you know, the shifts that happened in manufacturing and the decline there. You know, posing these huge problems for the community. Uh, you know, when you think about, you know , your own time and in Buffalo, you know, how do you think about the changes that you've seen there? And what's going on?

Sean Ryan:

Some of the changes are , are really unbelievable . You sometimes you don't realize the economic doldrums you're in until they lift. And then you see , uh , just, you know, how things are so much , uh , so much better. So, you know, we had a period of probably 20 years where our housing value didn't even increase with inflation and we just took that as the norm that your $80,000 house , uh, you know, maybe in 20 years it'd be worth $90,000. That was the norm. But now we're, we're starting to see, you know, real escalation of , of housing price. Still hasn't anywhere near caught up to , uh , the , the increases we didn't have. So the next to other American cities we're still very, very affordable. Uh, but for us it seems like that's like a really big increase. That's just one indicator.

Dean Colvin:

Yeah. You know, and underneath that there's obviously always like the economic changes that underlying it. You know, one thing that struck me , I was when I was up in Buffalo a few months back going around the city , my, my mother-in-law spent her childhood in Buffalo cause her dad worked for Cargill. And so, you know, I've always heard these stories about, you know, the Cargill facilities there. As we're going around the city you saw, I saw these old , you know, elevators that with Cargill on the side of them, but they're just ruined now. Right? They're kind of abandoned. And so you get that kind of , you know, that economic dislocation, right, that underlies, you know, why your house value hasn't gone up.

Sean Ryan:

It's all, it's all tied in together. So, you know, we had this , you know, 1950s and early 60s, the Buffalo economy appeared to be a bulletproof economy. You know, often people thought of it as an envious economy. Uh , but we didn't realize how over reliant we were on the industrial sector. So we had a very broad base industrial sector, which appeared safe. Uh, but little did we know that the entire industrial economy in America was going to change. And that's everything from shipping to grain production to chemicals, automobiles, steel, you know, all those components we had in Buffalo and they all substantially shrunk in a pretty short period of time. And that just had a tremendous ripple effect.

Dean Colvin:

Yeah, I mean, I think that's what's striking, right? This is kind of , you know, a microcosm of the American story of kind of economic growth and then dislocation. Right? So, you know, you saw, you saw that kind of heyday that the American economy in the 50s and 60s, when, you know, things were, things were really strong, right? And then that massive dislocation that happened 70s, 80s, 90s on, right. So that, you know, when you look around today, right, it's, it's you know , you can't understand the current situation without knowing that kind of history of history of what happened.

Sean Ryan:

In some ways, you know , we are the beneficiary of historic luck. So in 1825, we were in the right geographic place for the Erie Canal. But when the 50s and 60s rolled around, we, you know, we consider ourselves bad luck, but it was often, you know, intentional governmental policy. So our grain industry disappeared with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway system. All right , so it made the Erie canal , uh , redundant. Uh , but then there was no plan ever for, well, how are we going to restore the economy that we just hurt? And then, you know, even with our steel and auto industry, you know, there was several trade pacts that, that weren't really that helpful to places like Buffalo before NAFTA. It was programs called the maquiladora programs where we had factories that employ just shy of a thousand people, you know, picked up the entire factory , and moved it to the Mexican side of the Texas-Mexican border. But those were, those were intentional trade policies designed to generate overall economic growth, but it really had a severe impact on areas of the country that still haven't recovered.

Dean Colvin:

Yeah, it's always interesting when we talk about it here in the academic setting of like a place like Cornell, right? Our economists will talk about the theory on trade. And the theory on trade is that it'll, it'll produce more gains overall. Right? But there's also always t he story that, you know, we know that there's going to be winners and losers, right? Some sectors and locales are going to be hit worse and the c ountry i s going to be richer off. But, then the ec onomists a lways so rt o f w ave hands at the end and say, you know but the, the winners can compensate the losers. Right? That's always ki nd o f t he answer at the end. Right? And it seems that's where you get that tension between kind of the academic idea of this happening and then you know, your world. And the policy and the politics of, well, how do you actually do that? Right? How do yo u, you know, or even are you go ing t o d o that? Right? You know, you pass the trade pact, but then you don't provide whatever adjustment or support that's going to make sure that, you know, overall everybody's go ing t o c ome out better.

Sean Ryan:

You're right. In Buffalo, you know, we talk , about NAFTA you know, we still say, you know, we , we like NAFTA if it had labor protection and environmental protection. So, you know , how does a Buffalo plant compare, you know , compete with a, another locality that happens to be a different country that offers no workforce protections and also has no environmental regulations attached to? It doesn't create that equal economic playing field.

Dean Colvin:

Yeah. And then I, you know, I think the other , um, you know, part of that is then what's the strategy for making sure that, you know, you have jobs in Buffalo as well, right. Good jobs.

Sean Ryan:

Yeah. And that's really where, you know , Cornell and the ILR school had been particularly helpful to , you know, to upstate cities. Especially Buffalo trying to help us forge a path forward in this economy.

Dean Colvin:

Yeah, I mean, I think it's, it's one of those tough tasks, right? That we've got to figure out where exactly it is that the potential is for new jobs and how to make those good jobs, right? I mean, that's, that's always one of the tough questions is you can say, you know, we'll create jobs and if you look at the list of , growing jobs projections, right, they tend to be a lot in the healthcare industry. You know, projections, our , you know, aging population. We know we have healthcare needs, but a lot of the growing ones are home healthcare aides and nursing assistance and jobs that tend to be, you know, the least compensated amongst the health jobs and poor job qualities. Right? So it seems like, you know, we've got to both figure out, you know, where we can get more jobs and make sure those are actually good jobs too.

Sean Ryan:

And that that's always the challenge, right? So, the U.S. economy is really good at producing jobs, uh , unfortunately , more and more of those jobs are in the retail sector and those, that sector is a sector that's been traditionally non-unionized. So there's been no wage pressure. Um, so it's a whole sector of the economy that we've sort of written off as a, as a low wage , uh , job, you know , forever. You know one of the fastest growing parts of the economy for women in the workforce is , is pharmaceutical clerks. And that sounds like a pretty good job. But in reality it's somebody stocking shelves at a, at a, in a Rite Aid in the pharmacy section. And that job generally pays, you know, hovers, you know, 10% above, above minimum wage. Aren't really the types of jobs that we've , you know, we were looking for. But I guess we also have to remind ourselves a lot of how do jobs become high wage jobs in America in often they become high wage jobs because they have collective bargaining agreements. You know, the steel companies didn't come to Buffalo to provide high wage jobs. They came to Buffalo because we had a , uh, a low wage immigrant workforce that, you know , they thought they could get a lot of work out of for very little money. It was only through educating and bargaining that we were able to make those jobs into high wage jobs. And, you know, I wonder, you know, how much power is in the economy that's never realized because there's just not a lot of pressure to raise wages. So many parts of our economy.

Dean Colvin:

Yeah. One of the things that's been really a surprise to me to be honest in the last few years is how the conversation around wages has come alive again. It seemed like we'd kind of forgotten wages as an issue for quite a while . And now, you know, you see , you know, political candidates supporting sectorial bargaining, right? The idea that maybe , you know, we could have an industry wide bargaining. You know, we saw the minimum wage, the Fight for 15 campaign succeed, you know, far beyond what I'd expected. Right. You know, I mean, that was sort of an example where it was almost the practice got ahead of the theory, right? I mean, we knew the research showed that this should be okay, shouldn't have the negative effect on jobs, but I didn't, I didn't think it was going to be politically feasible. I mean this was, this was a big surprise to me.

Sean Ryan:

Yeah, it was. It was a real surprise to, you know, as a member of the legislature when we were actually able to push that through it and put it together, we quickly went from, you know , rhetoric to practice. But you know, we've done a lot in Western New York to try to, you know, to improve the economic conditions, but that increase in the minimum wage, which, you know, in Buffalo it tops off not at 15 but at 12, you know , that put like 25% more wages on people's tables. It really had an incredible impact in terms of, you know , reducing poverty and then also the working poor, you know, suddenly you are able to afford to put a roof on your house. So, you know, these are the same jobs, but we essentially mandated that they pay about 25% more and, you know, we held our breath, but all the data is showing that we not only didn't lose jobs, but we actually gained jobs.

Dean Colvin:

Yeah, and I mean, one of the things I found really interesting is that it seems like it has a knock-on effect so that you know, people above the minimum wage point, right, and , uh, you know, unions with their contracts can then actually negotiate more because there's a higher floor. So they're not having to compete with that real rock bottom low wage type of business model.

Sean Ryan:

I think you're, I think you're absolutely right. You bring that, that floor up, and then other companies have to respond to stay competitive. And it also, you know, I subscribe to that theory of the increase in minimum w age i s, you know, it's fast money into the economy. That money doesn't go to investment funds. It doesn't go to longterm strategies. It goes right back out onto the street, into the cash boxes of local stores and restaurants, and retail establishments. It seems to be having a pretty positive effect.

Dean Colvin:

Yeah, no, it's really great to see that and , you know, I think it opens up possibilities to think about, you know, more policies like this that can have that real economic development impact. But you know, one of the things that's been interesting in the work we've been doing , particularly in Western New York, is this attempt to map out where it is that you can see potentials for really increasing job numbers. We've got some work we're doing around like in the healthcare industry trying to figure out, you know, where we can get more access to employment. And particularly, you know, there's a lot of groups that haven't had really good access to jobs in the past. You think of people with disabilities, which you know, is a huge, a huge issue. A criminal record , you know, cutting people off from jobs, right? When we know that the best way to prevent somebody committing a crime again is to get them a job, right? You know, and trying to figure out the spots where you can get that access.

Sean Ryan:

You'll see as the, as the workforce is tightening, companies aren't objecting to the Ban t he Box of not being able to ask about, yo u k n ow, criminal behavior in the past. Companies are starting to drop some of th eir, their drug tests. You know, an d t hen frankly, you know, there are companies that probably didn't have the best track records wi th, with hiring people of color ar e s uddenly, you know, recruiting in neighborhoods of color to try an d b ring people into the workforce. So it turns out a strong economy really, really does lift all boats at the same time. I think we're seeing that.

Dean Colvin:

Yeah. You know , I think it opens up really new possibilities. You know, I was thinking about one of the projects we're doing at ILR where we're looking at criminal records effects and we've got people going into prisons looking at, and working with , incarcerated individuals who are about to be released and doing education about jobs. And , there's even a job fair that we've run in one of the facilities to try and connect people with jobs. Right? And that's, that's a sort of agenda that I think, you know, we wouldn't have been focused on 10 or 20 years ago and I don't think was on the public policy agenda. The Ban the Box is something that's really picked up in just the last few years. Which is a hopeful thing, right? It's, it's nice to see where public policy can make a difference in people's lives.

Sean Ryan:

We are going to be an optimistic that with good policy , public policy, we can have positive impacts on people's lives and the economy at the same time. You know, for far to often it was sort of, it was sold as this, you can have good public policy, but it's gonna hurt your economy in the long run . What we're seeing a lot of these policies, you have what you called the, you know, the knock-on effect of raising wages or the fast money from a minimum wage increases and, you know, banning the box, they're all things that are good for the economy.

Dean Colvin:

Yeah. And it's interesting, I think, you know, in terms of the regional impact that these things have, you know, up here in upstate New York, right, we're in a region that , you know, had this great economic history, but in recent years, you know, we've had some, some tough times and I think there's, there's sometimes been a tendency to be, you know, despondent about the possibilities, right. To think that, you know, things can, things can't turn around right. That , it will make a difference. Right. Uh , what we do,

Sean Ryan:

And we also, I think too , we've become a little fear based. So, you know, there was a lot of trepidation about increasing the minimum wage for fear of what it could do to our, to our economy. So we're seeing the , these growths on most of our economic sectors, while we still lag behind the national average in most of them, it's better than we've done in 20 years. But I would say that what we still don't fully trust it. We need some more good years of good economy before we become accustomed to this as the norm. You know, we still are a little wary and we think, you know, perhaps the rug could be pulled out at any second. So we keep our fingers crossed and you know we whistle when we go by grave yards.

Dean Colvin:

That's right. You know, there's , you know, we see it academically. There's a lag in the positive effects as kind of things pick up, right? People take a while to be convinced that things are moving in a positive direction. But you know, I think we're starting to see those kind of some optimism around that. And , you know, and I think that potential for policy interventions and thinking about a real kind of good longterm strategy seems to be there now.

Sean Ryan:

I think it is, you know , you referenced the healthcare economy before, so, you know, we were trying to grow the healthcare economy. But we were seeing there is a two tiered economy in healthcare . So if you're in a hospital , you usually get a good wage. If you're with an insurance company that does health benefits, you get a good wage. But if you're providing anything around home health care , that's often a low wage part of the health economy. So you have people doing very similar jobs , in a hospital or in a home setting. But the people in the home setting often get paid substantially less money, even though it's cheaper, usually on the system to keep people in homes as long as possible. But, you know, we'd have to look at policies to make sure that we're able to keep the wages of people who provide in-home care, you know, to keep it high because, you know, low wages, we've figured out a really bad for our economy .

Dean Colvin:

Yeah and I think this is where some of the most interesting experiments with unions and collective bargaining have emerged. Right? If you look across the country, the increasing numbers of home healthcare workers who have union representation has been a real transformational effect. I mean some of the biggest ordinances, successes of being in that industry.

Sean Ryan:

Yeah. It's fascinating . And, you don't have to go back too far to look at, you know, just nurses in hospitals. So up until the 80s, most of those nurses in hospital settings were not unionized. You know, they're all unionized now. And undoubtedly all the nurses wages have come up. But also the health care outcomes have come up at the same time. So once again, we were able to get this social policy of higher wages for nurses simultaneously , increasing the healthcare outcomes at the same time. So we have to get out of this thinking that it's sort of a zero sum gains on these things. We can have real gains.

Dean Colvin:

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you think about, you know, you know who's going to be looking after your parent or yourself and you know, in the future and, you know, do you want that person to be, you know, paid decently, have, you know, decent shift times and be able to kind of live a good middle-class kind of life. You know, you think that person's going to be much more able to give you better care in that situation or your loved one.

Sean Ryan:

Yeah, I , I agree. People who are suffering under economic insecurity often don't have the bandwidth then , you know, to go in, you know , you know, provide care, you know , too many, too many other worries going on. So, you know , we would like them to have some of their worries lifted and I think we have better outcomes on that.

Dean Colvin:

Yeah. Another thing that has been a real success from our standpoint here at the ILR School in relation to Buffalo is that we've got this High Roads program that brings Cornell students to Buffalo working with community organizations and trying to make an impact in the local community that way. You know, and, and we're hoping that that's something that is valuable for the local community in Buffalo.

Sean Ryan:

Yeah. I mean, it certainly has. ILR has been in Buffalo since, right after World War II and what they've been able to bring to Buffalo lately is just really this an outsider's view of optimism, but also, you know , reaffirming the outsider's view that, you know, Buffalo is a great place. Yeah . So with these High Road fellows , those were able to bring these students in, you know, to experience a 360 view of Buffalo , use their good skillset in the workforce. But I view them all as ambassadors , who, you know, enjoy their time in Buffalo, will go on to do other things in other parts of the country, but they'll spread the gospel of Buffalo being a really a good place, often exceeding their expectations at all fronts.

Dean Colvin:

Yeah. That's something I've really heard from the students. So you get some of the students who you know, are from the region and know it, but the, the really interesting ones are the ones who, you know, might've grown up down in New York city, you know, never really got to know this part of the state at all. And they get up to Buffalo and it opens their eyes. It really is a different kind of experience. You know, we, we talk about, you know, a period of kind of where, you know, the country is more fractured than it's been in the past and, and that idea of kind of getting our students out to, to see , you know, another part of the country I think is transformative.

Sean Ryan:

I think it's invaluable. And they really do get a complete view of Buffalo. I mean, they go to workplaces , they visit people in their homes and they realize that, holy cow, this is a city with median housing price is about $150 , 000. Our commute time is about 15 minutes on average. We have world class art museums. We have the Buffalo Bills. We have the Buffalo sabers, University of Buffalo, and you k now, t hey, get to see it all. But I think, you know, around America th ere's m any more cities like Buffalo then there are cities like New York city, you know, and Los Angeles. So, you know, this is the ec onomy's t hat we're trying to improve and we're representative of similar economies all across America that we're trying to figure out solutions for.

Dean Colvin:

Yeah, yeah. It's really a great learning experience, right? To see that sort of practical thing of how the real economy works. Um, and you know, what it means in terms of local communities. I think that the housing price thing is one of those great kind of contrast. Right. You know, you , you're talking about the kind of housing costs that would get you maybe like a , a closet in New York city to live in. You know, that really opens the eyes.

Sean Ryan:

From an architectural perspective, you know, the unintended consequence of having economic doldrums, you know, from the 50s to recently was we didn't have a lot of large scale demolitions of our historic structures. So throughout downtown we have, you know, beautiful buildings that in other economies probably would have been removed. You know, we have neighborhood after neighborhood of houses built between 1900 in 1920. It looks picture perfect. And you go inside, the houses and they were built with such a high, high level of craftsmanship from that period of time. And you know, using, you know, wood that you can't really even get anymore. I t's, it's really a, a , it's mind boggling to walk in some of these Buffalo houses and buildings that you have to think that, you know, we still have it and it's achievable and to people of more modest means.

Dean Colvin:

Yeah. And it's amazing to see how, what potential there is for , as the economy picks up and as the community's being renewed , uh, you know, how you can build on that infrastructure. I mean , I think at that, when I go to our ILR office in Buffalo, which is in this beautiful old, like 1890, 1900 building and it's got that beautiful old skeleton to it, but then you go into the offices where they've renovated and it's this beautiful modern, open office within this amazing historical building. And, you know, and I think, you know, across that kind of, you know, a community skeleton of infrastructure for the, the old buildings there, there's enormous potential , for, for kind of renovation and new building.

Sean Ryan:

There is , you know, we , we recognize that as a strength. You know, people want stuff that's tangible and you know , they call it real , you know, this is, this is real stuff and there's generations attached to it. We try to catalyze that in New York state by the historic tax credit. The federal government has a historic tax credit. And then we match the federal government's with a separate New York state tax credit and that's done wonders are redoing our old buildings. And we brought our rate down to the neighborhood level, so that if you're in a historic district that, you know, putting a roof on your house qualifies you for a New York state historic tax credit. So it's gone from doing wonderful big buildings like the Market Arcade that you were referring to, the Lafayette Hotel or just houses throughout neighborhoods that really help to catalyze investments and help to defray some of the costs associated with, you know, working on, you know, centuries old buildings.

Dean Colvin:

Yeah. I think it's a great example of, of how public policy makes a difference, right? And , and in areas that aren't the sort of sexiest areas of public policy, right? Zoning policy, right, isn't the , the sexiest issue, but it's one that affects people where they live. It affects communities, the landscape that we move through , and, and has these, these profound effects of the local economy and people's people's lived lives.

Sean Ryan:

Yeah. It's, you know, it's wonderful when you can put policies in to effect that, you know, you could see it coming out, whether it's the historic tax credit , the changes in the minimum minimum wage , the Brownfield tax credits, all , you know, all these policies, you know , have an impact. And you know, there is always an element of risk when you put together a public policy. I mean, you rely on , academics and folks who like are at the ILR School that tell you we think you're on the right track here, right? Then we put them into place and there's real life consequences of that. And you know, more often than not, it's my opinion that we get it right. But we , I think we need to be bolder as we move forward as we think of lifting the economies of the rest of the state. You know, let's face it, the only truly healthy city in all of New York state is New York city. The Buffalos, the Rochesters, the Syracuse, Albany, Utica, Binghamton, Elmira . They're all under tremendous strain. So we need to look at the different regions of our state, but also come up with policies that are designed to intentionally kickstart our urban areas.

Dean Colvin:

Yeah. And I think, you know, in our side is the kind of university's perspective on it. You know, we can come up with the ideas but we don't know how they'll actually work until you guys put them into practice. And we can take a look at those policies and see, Hey, you know, yeah, this worked, that didn't, let's refine it a little bit. Here's some new ideas and we keep moving forward. But you've got to have the bold policies. You got to try them out to see if they're going to work.

Sean Ryan:

Yeah, I mean the work of the ILR school in Buffalo in the last 20 years, you folks did a report called Champions of Work and updated that report. And it all talked about, you know, the different types of jobs in our economy in how did you have jobs in their impact differ based on their wage and benefit packages. So that really opened our eyes to this idea of we need to focus more on jobs that have the potential to pay a higher salary rate. And that's the jobs we should be focusing on. And I believe your school coined the tag of "high road economic development policies." But with the high road policy, you'll look at, you know , the job all, you know, all the way through. So we're going to subsidize a company that company's going to come in. We look at the environmental impacts of that, and then we look at the workforce, the development that'll need. But then, you know, the type of job that'll be created, the pay and how long we think it'll last in the economy. So it really helps us change the way we think of things.

Dean Colvin:

Yeah, no, that's really great. I mean, I think that's, that's the core of our kind of mission as the ILR school is that we're trying to come up with ideas that can be used in practice, that really have impact improving people's lives and really helping communities. You know, we are the , uh , New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations where the land grant university for New York state. And so it's important that we do things that will have impact on the state and improve the lives of New York Staters.

Sean Ryan:

Well, I think you're, I think you're, you're doing a good job and it's certainly having a, a positive impact in the city of Buffalo.

Dean Colvin:

Well thanks. And you know, it's really good having great partners in the Buffalo area. You know, we really appreciate that and being able to work with the leaders of the Buffalo community to, to have that positive impact in the local area.

Sean Ryan:

Thanks so much.

Dean Colvin:

Great. Thank you.

Diane Burton:

Thank you for joining us for "Work! Exploring the future of work, labor and employment." In our next episode, Dean Colvin talks with author Jon Gordon about leadership in the workplace. Again, thank you for listening and learn more about ILR by visiting us on the web at ilr.cornell . edu.