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Guest Column: Leslie Danks Burke

“Labor Day 2020”

Leslie Danks Burke is running for New York State Senate in the 58th district, which includes Schuyler, Chemung, Steuben and Yates counties, and part of Tompkins. Her office is at 700 N. Franklin St., Watkins Glen.

WATKINS GLEN, Sept. 3, 2020 -- One of my earliest memories is riding in my red wagon at about age 3, my dad pulling me as he walked door-to-door to drop literature about the candidates he supported. I made a game out of speedily organizing a neat little stack containing each candidate's card before my dad got to the next front door.

The bottom of those cards always boasted a union bug, the little mark showing that the employees who made that card had rights like lunch breaks, weekends, and sick leave, because they'd banded together to secure those rights. I remember lining up those union bugs with each other to sort the cards, because I was too little to read the words. I was well into my teens before I understood that the union bug didn't always show up on every piece of paper related to politics. I didn't know that there were candidates who do not keep up the fight for good-paying jobs at safe workplaces.

Labor Day is coming up this Monday, September 7th, and while many of us take advantage of the day off for backyard barbecues and picnics, I like to spend part of the time remembering why we get that day off. It's pretty extraordinary if you think about it: The folks who made Labor Day possible were, by definition, underpaid and overworked. They worked in dangerous conditions -- so they banded together to get safer workplaces. They didn't get paid enough to support their families, they worked long hours, they got sick and couldn't stay home -- but they still took on the extra load of organizing a movement to make things better.

Back on September 5, 1882, 10,000 New York City workers took the day to march from City Hall to Union Square. It was another 12 years before Labor Day became a federal holiday. But a one-day holiday wasn't -- still isn't -- enough to solve the problem of making people do unsafe work for barely enough money to feed their families. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire killed 146 workers in 1911, prompting the New York State Legislature to finally establish the Factory Investigating Commission to document dangerous working conditions. It's tragic that it took mass deaths.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt became governor of New York in 1929, he appointed Frances Perkins, a member of the Factory Investigating Commission, as the state's first industrial commissioner. She had witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire first-hand, and she expanded factory inspections and advocated for a minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and improved safety laws. She then became Secretary of Labor when Roosevelt was elected president in 1933. Perkins never wavered in her support of working people. She is a big part of why we have Social Security today. After her time in public service, Perkins ended up in our area, joining the faculty of the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University in 1952. As a stalwart defender and advocate of the labor movement, this New Yorker shaped history.

After Roosevelt and Perkins left state government, New York continued to lead on championing the rights of working people. In 1938, New York voters ratified an amendment to the State Constitution that explicitly states that the "labor of human beings is not a commodity nor an article of commerce." Today, one-in-five wage and salary workers in New York belong to a union, proudly twice as many as the average across the country.

Just like the workers who fought and died to get the safety we now enjoy, the union members among us today continue to benefit everyone around them. Riding in my little red wagon four decades ago, I was blissfully unaware of the struggle and suffering that led to the union bug on those cards. But I prefer knowing the full story, that there are still some politicians who don't prioritize good-paying jobs and safe workplaces, but also that there are still workers who take a stand that benefits all of us. This Monday, on Labor Day, we can all take a moment on our day off that they fought for, to thank them.

Photo: Leslie Danks Burke

Schuyler County Officials

Legislature Members:

Top row (from left): Carl Blowers, Jim Howell, Michael Lausell, Van Harp

Bottom row: Gary Gray, David Reed, Phil Barnes, Mark Rondinaro


Legislature Chairman

Carl Blowers, 535-6174 or 237-5469

Legislature Members:

Gary Gray, 292-9922

Van Harp, 329-2160

Jim Howell, 535-7266 or 227-1141

David M. Reed, 796-9558

Michael Lausell, 227- 9226

Phil Barnes, Watkins Glen, 481-0482

Mark Rondinaro, 398-0648

County Clerk: Theresa Philbin, 535-8133

Sheriff: William Yessman, 535-8222

Undersheriff: Breck Spaulding, 535-8222

County Treasurer: Holley Sokolowski, 535-8181

District Attorney: Joseph Fazzary, 535-8383


State, Federal Officials for Schuyler County

Sen. Charles E. Schumer

United States Senate
313 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510-3201
DC Phone: 202-224-6542
DC Fax: 202-228-3027
Email Address:

Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand

United States Senate
478 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
DC Phone: 202-224-4451

State Senator Tom O'Mara -- Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben, Yates, western Tompkins, Enfield, Ithaca (Town and City), Newfield, Ulysses(Trumansburg)

Room 812, Legislative Office Building
Albany, NY 12247
Phone: (518) 455-2091
Fax: (518) 426-6976

Assemblyman Phil Palmesano-- Steuben, Schuyler, Yates
Room 723, Legislative Office Building
Albany, NY 12248
Phone: (518) 455-5791


© The Odessa File 2017
Charles Haeffner
P.O. Box 365
Odessa, New York 14869