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Union Members Gather for Labor Day Rally on Final Day of 2015 NYS Fair

Members of a wide-range of labor unions gathered at the state fairgrounds for an annual rally that celebrated their accomplishments…as well as a different kind of support and leadership.  There was a strong showing from  teachers at this year’s rally, ranging from members of the Syracuse Teachers Association to United University Professions.  

Credit Scott Willis / WAER News

  But the keynote speech came from the resident of New York State United Teachers, representing 600,000 members in education, health care, and human services.  Karen McGee took the helm of NYSUT as the first woman president in April 2014.   She made the trip to Syracuse from Harrison in Westchester county, where she’s been an elementary school teacher for 30 years. 

"You seen the bumper stickers on the car.  Union: the folks that brought you the weekend.  You're damn right we brought you the weekend and the 40 hour work week, and fought against exploiting children in the workplace."

McGee says today, they’re fighting for fair wages for the working poor, including the $15 an hour wage for fast food workers.  She says they’re fighting against overtime abuse and wage theft.  The only other person to make remarks at Monday's rally was someone who on the surface might seem like an unlikely supporter of labor.  But Republican Congressmember John Katko heaped plenty of praise on unionized workers past and present, and committed to fix something that has generated much concern among teachers, parents, and children.

Credit Scott Willis / WAER News

  "I'm fighting every day to try and undo the mess that common core has become," he said to a cheering crowd.  "You deserve to teach how you want to teach.  You can't teach a kid in the city of Syracuse the same way you teach them in Fayetteville-Manlius.  It's time they recognize that," he said to more applause and cheers.  "I'm with you, I don't care what party I'm with because I understand labor is the backbone of Central New York."

Katko says he broke with his party to side with labor in his opposition to the Trade Promotion Authority, which congress approved earlier this summer.  He says the TPA amounts to another NAFTA, draining good jobs from upstate in favor of cheaper labor overseas.  


In a food landscape dominated by deep-fried this and bacon wrapped that, fairgoers had a healthier option this year.  We checked in with the fair’s first and only vegan vendor as the fair came to a close.  Joel Capolongo is co-owner of Strong Hearts Café, which has locations on E. Genesee St. University Ave. in Syracuse.  But for the past 12 days, they’ve also been at the fair. 

Credit Scott Willis / WAER News
Strong Hearts Cafe at the NYS Fair.

"Our expectations have not only been met, but wildly exceeded.  We didn't know how Syracuse or people of the fair would respond to vegan food.  Never been done before.  But we're pleasantly surprised.”                        

He admits it was a bit of an experiment to branch out.

"We're kind of like the exotic option at the fair now.  We're the vegan option,  and that's not common here, so we're the exotic thing people have to try.”                                           

And try, they have.  Capolongo says about half of those who stop by are familiar with Strong Hearts, while the other half are curious.  Count Doug Watusik of Cicero as one of the former.

“I love milkshakes, I love Strong Hearts Cafe.  It's vegan, and I'm not a vegan, but I like vegan food.  So I decided it was perfect for me.  I ordered a chocolate peanut butter, which is my favorite.”                                  

Hear Scott Willis' report on the first vegan vendor the NYS Fair.

  Capolongo says their soy-based shakes are big sellers at the fair and their cafes.  They also sell food…he says fairgoers could choose from vegan versions of fair favorites like buffalo chicken wings or Phillycheesesteak, or go for healthier options like summer kale salad.  Capolongo says that variety seems to be working.

"We've gotten many many favorable reviews.  Comments nearly across the board have been positive.  So, I would say we've landed very well, and found a permanent spot here the fair."                             

Capolongo says he and co-owner Nick Ryan are likely to renew their lease for next year at their location in the corner of the international building.  

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at