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Labor Day Parade Mixes Celebration and Struggle

September 17, 2015
By Steven Wishnia

As organ music wafted out of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on the morning of Sept. 12, so did members of New York’s labor unions, ready for the city’s annual Labor Day parade—from the 100,000-member giants like 1199SEIU, the United Federation of Teachers, and District Council 37 to smaller locals like the Federation of Catholic School Teachers, Sheet Metal Workers Local 137, and the New York State Rent Regulation Services Employees.

“We celebrate the contributions that organized labor has made for over a century, but we also recommit ourselves to fighting for workers who don’t have the benefits of collective bargaining,” Vincent Alvarez, head of the New York City Central Labor Council, told LaborPress. “Now more than ever.”

“It’s a good old-fashioned American tradition to show that unions are standing strong no matter what,” said Tammy Meadows, a vice-president of Communications Workers of America Local 1182, which represents city traffic and sanitation enforcement agents.

Mayor Bill de Blasio launched the parade at 44th Street, proclaiming, “it is my honor to declare today that New York City is a union town,” while Sen. Charles Schumer told the crowd that if the Democrats retake the Senate in 2016, “we are going to make card check one of our very highest priorities.”

“It’s not just a holiday. It’s a day to reflect on the sacrifices of the labor movement and say thank you to the people who work for the city of New York,” City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito told LaborPress.

In New York, said Mario Cilento of the state AFL-CIO, “we set an example for the rest of the country.”

DC 37 member Achiuye Liu was marching for the first time, and Carmelo Mallia for the 37th. Liu, an immigrant from Spain, is a community assistant at Manhattan International High School and a member of Local 372; she said she came out “for our union to become more strong.” Mallia, now 75, was one of the original members of Local 371, the welfare workers’ union whose successful strike in 1965 opened the way for DC 37 to organize more than 100,000 city employees.

“As a worker, it gives us an opportunity to celebrate all the gains we’ve made as a union,” said Carmen Charles, president of the hospital workers’ Local 420. “Even though we’ve come a long way, the struggle continues.”

The Jewish Labor Committee and the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement gathered on East 44th Street before heading north on Fifth Avenue toward the reviewing stand at 64th Street. The Irish-American Labor Coalition carried a banner of 1916 Easter Rising martyr James Connolly. The Union Veterans Council followed, led by four flag-bearers in dress greens and desert camouflage.

“We’re here both to celebrate and to fight for fair pay,” said Esther Motta, a member of Transport Workers Union Local 100. She works in an Access-A-Ride call center for a Metropolitan Transportation Authority contractor “that’s overworking and underpaying its employees.”

The large 1199SEIU contingent mixed those sentiments too. They carried signs with slogans like “UNIONS WON: 8-Hour Workday” and ‘UNIONS FOR: $15 for Home-Care Workers” popping out in comic-strip balloons. One family wore West Indian Carnival-style outfits, their bodies dwarfed by black and orange feathers and red and gold wings. They marched in front of a truck with a band that played the ’70s-funk labor anthem “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.”

“People are coming together and having a good time,” said Richie Camisa, one of several members of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3’s motorcycle club present. But with the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks having passed the day before, Sal Cioffi, who works on the new World Trade Center One, was remembering the 17 Local 3 members who were killed, along with four broadcast engineers from IBEW Local 1212. “I engraved all their names at the bottom of the beacon light,” he said. “Every time we look up at that red light, we know they’re up there.”

Trucks blowing their airhorns, an ambulance bleeping its siren, and a bebop band from the National Jazz Museum in Harlem sounded the presence of multiple Teamsters locals—the city workers’ 237, 707, 807, 808, 813, 814, and the theatrical truckers’ 817. A dozen-odd people sat on the last two trucks’ back flaps, holding “Black Jobs Matter” signs.

Behind them came about 100 people in the “Labor for Bernie” contingent, supporting the Vermont senator’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders, said Ben Serby, a graduate assistant at Columbia University and a member of United Auto Workers Local 2110, has “been a true friend to labor and the working class, unlike the Democratic party establishment.”

They paused in front of the Trump Tower, where two men, in DC 37 and UAW T-shirts, held up a banner that read: “Mr. Trump: We regret to inform you that YOU’RE FIRED. Signed, America’s workers.”

“I think the labor movement is poised for a resurgence,” said Jack Torpey, past president of Steamfitters Local 638. “The American public has finally realized that unions created the middle class.”

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