For many, Labor Day is just a sad reminder of the end of summer and the beginning of school. It’s usually the time to get in that last trip to the beach, the last barbecue and the last chance to sleep late during the week. But Labor Day is really about so much more. With 12-hour work days seven days a week and children as young as 5 and 6 working in mills, mines and factories, Labor Day was conceived in the late 19th century by trade unionists as a way to recognize the contributions of workers and to serve as a show of force and catalyst for change. New York was the first state to push for it as an official holiday, and New York City actually held the nation’s first Labor Day Parade in 1882, when 10,000 workers took time off from their jobs to march from City Hall to Union Square. Only after the death of 34 striking Pullman workers of the American Railway Union at the hands of U.S. Army soldiers and marshals did the first Monday in September became an official federal holiday in 1894.
Today, with union membership at an all-time low of only 10.7 percent nationwide—as compared with peaks in the 1950s when 40 percent of American workers were union members—the Labor Day Parade takes on special meaning. Although New York leads the nation in union membership—at 24 percent, with public sector workers making up the vast majority of those workers and African-Americans the largest component—the city’s parade, the biggest in the country, is viewed by some as a relic of the past. Quite the contrary. Labor Day and the parade to commemorate it should be viewed as a persevering symbol of the long-lasting presence and indestructible power of the labor movement, despite the ever-increasing efforts to do us in—whether in the guise of a constitutional convention or the countless other moves by the union bashers, the union busters and the big money campaigns to discredit, dishearten and diminish labor’s importance.
At Teamsters Local 237, we understand the necessity of our unity and the power of its strength. Our commitment is both practical and moral. We know, for example, that non-union workers earn on average 80 percent less than union members. We also know that workers’ rights are unquestionably intertwined with civil rights. We cannot have one without the other. That is why we join. That is why we march. Local 237 members recently joined more than 50,000 other proud union workers from throughout New York City and Long Island in this year’s Labor Day Parade, which is unlike any other parade in the City. It is not a protest rally or political demonstration. It is not cultural heritage on display. There are no turkeys or Rockettes, either. Instead, this parade features men and women marchers from all races, religions and orientations who are united by one common denominator: we’re all union workers. We march together because we know that unions give working families a strong voice and an unflinching advocate and give our children hope. We march together to send a message to our elected officials and the public at-large: “Support unions. They count. You should count yourself in!”
Gregory Floyd is president of Teamsters Local 237 and vice president-at-large on the General Board of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.