September 8, 2014
By Steven Wishnia
“For me, every day is Labor Day. When it’s in your blood, when you get the opportunity to represent working men and women, every day is Labor Day,” says Chris Erikson, business manager of Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “But today is special.”
Erikson, standing outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral on the morning of Sept. 6, was the grand marshal for the city’s Labor Day parade, a tradition begun on the same date in 1882, when about 10,000 people, workers and their families, marched from City Hall to 42nd Street under the umbrella of the Central Labor Union. The workers took an unpaid day off. One of the honored guests was the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, a Brooklyn minister and social reformer whose sister Harriet had written the antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The original idea for the parade—to celebrate workers and express their solidarity and clout—came from either Peter J. McGuire, who the year before had founded the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, or from CLU secretary Matthew Maguire, a socialist machinist from Paterson, New Jersey who had led several strikes for an eight-hour workday. McGuire was a cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, while Maguire was a member of the rival Knights of Labor.
“Working men and women come together to share their voice on the issues confronting their families,” said Mario Cilento, head of the New York State AFL-CIO. “It’s public-sector, private-sector, building trades, from all across the city and state.”
“It means everything,” said Lillian Roberts, president of District Council 37, the city’s largest public-employee union. “This is what keeps our country going. It’s coming together and recognizing our contributions that resound around the world.”
A large showbiz contingent followed the top leaders and elected officials at the front of the parade. The Writers Guild of America East, Actors Equity, and SAG-AFTRA, then Musicians Local 802, with a six-piece New Orleans-style brass band on its float. Three vintage cars—a Camaro, a Charger, and a ’55 Chevy—led the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, its various locals representing the myriad jobs that keep movies and plays going: motion-picture mechanics, film editors, ticket-sellers, wardrobe workers, makeup and hair stylists, and scenic artists.
“You have all labor here and sticking together,” said Harry Nespoli, head of Teamsters Local 831, representing city sanitation workers. “The workers of New York City should be proud, because the tourism here is outstanding. It’s a safe, clean city. The Department of Sanitation is keeping it clean, and that’s why they keep coming back.”
Other contingents waited on the side streets off Fifth Avenue. Graduate students and legal-services workers from the United Auto Workers. Steamfitters from Local 638. “You gotta be here. It’s important to the union,” said Bobby Baculy, a 25-year-old member of Plumbers Local 1 waiting on the corner of 45th Street with his wife and two small children. “Support the union. Support what our forefathers fought for,” added his fellow plumber Anthony Ioimo, 50.
Baculy’s 2½-year-old son climbed up on the metal police barricade, pointing at the Electricians Local 3 bagpipe-and-drum band, clad in kilts, playing a version of “Solidarity Forever” that segued into “God Bless America.”
A contingent of a few thousand Local 3 members and their families marched behind them. Many carried stark black-and-white signs. “SOMETHING HAS GONE AWRY IN AMERICA.” “ELIMINATION OF THE MIDDLE CLASS.” “AMERICANS NEED GOOD JOBS.” “WE WILL NOT BE SILENT.”
“We stand up not just for our members, but for all working people,” said Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, which represents more than 25,000 City University faculty and staff. “This is a display of power for all working people.”