NEW YORK, N.Y.—The unofficial slogan of the 2018 Labor Day parade could have been “Never mind the Januses, we’re sticking with the union.”
Civil Service Employees Association members wore navy-blue T-shirts with “We’re Sticking With Our Union.” Communications Workers of America members wore red ones reading “I’m Sticking With My Union 100%.” And the building-trades unions filled block after block on Fifth Avenue with contingents clad in bright light-green “Count Me In” T-shirts.”
“This is our day to reassert ourselves,” Transport Workers Union President John Samuelsen told LaborPress as the parade began at Fifth Avenue and 44th Street. In the face of “nothing but relentless attacks from Washington,” he said, “organized labor is rebounding. We put over 250,000 members on the plus side into the labor movement over the last year.”
“This is the first year after the Supreme Court decision that was designed to squash unions and destroy our power, and I think you see today that that has not happened,” said Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, which represents City University of New York faculty and staff. District Council 37 treasurer Maf Misbah Uddin called it “the most important Labor Day parade in New York history to me.”
The parade was noticeably larger than it’s been in recent years, as contingents of actors and ticket sellers, teachers and police officers, college professors and data processors, journalists and flight attendants, bus drivers and letter carriers, plumbers, roofers, cement masons, bricklayers, and more marched up Fifth Avenue.
This is the first year after the Supreme Court decision that was designed to squash unions and destroy our power, and I think you see today that that has not happened. — Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress
It had the usual pageantry, steamfitters blowing bagpipes and a drum-and-bugle corps of traffic-enforcement agents, a ’67 Cadillac from International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 1 and a Mustang of similar vintage from Sheet Metal Workers Local 137, a big Latin-jazz band from American Federation of Musicians Local 802 and a woman from IATSE’s projectionists and ushers Local 306 singing “Life Is a Cabaret,” a sign-erecting crane for Local 137’s métier and an Ironworkers flatbed truck bearing a white-painted I-beam.
But there was an overall tone of defiance and resistance. “Let them know they are not defeating us,” CSEA statewide secretary Denise Berkeley told LaborPress. Social Service Employees Union Local 371 members wore black T-shirts reading “Union Thugs—Protecting Workers’ Rights.” As DC 37 members passed Trump Tower — which was guarded by two police officers in heavy bulletproof vests carrying assault rifles — they put a hip-hop flow onto chanting “Hey! Ho! Trump Has Got to Go!” DC 37’s Local 1407, which represents city accountants, had a uniquely occupational chant: “Audit Trump!”
Campaign signs for Gov. Andrew Cuomo were all over. The governor led off the parade, along with running mates Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and Attorney General candidate Letitia James, and union leaders including state AFL-CIO head Mario Cilento, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, and building-trades leader Gary LaBarbera. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is usually scheduled at labor events so that he or Cuomo can leave before the other arrives, marched about three rows back. Zephyr Teachout, who is also running in the Democratic primary for Attorney General, campaigned along the sidelines.
Others cautioned that union members can’t just assume Democrats will support labor. Agueda Arias, a board member of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, said “we have to be more diligent” with elected officials “who are supposed to be our friends.” Longtime organizer Ray Rogers argued that labor, tenants, and small businesses should unite against the Real Estate Board of New York, the trade group trying to break the building-trades unions at Hudson Yards and lobbying to block all efforts to strengthen rent-control laws or limit how much landlords can charge small businesses.
“We’re doing everything the Democrats should have been doing all these years,” said Samuelsen, speaking about “advancing economic security for working people.”
Both he and the CSEA’s Berkeley called the Janus decision, in which the Supreme Court prohibited public-employee unions from collecting fees from nonmembers they represent, “a wake-up call” for the union movement.
“I don’t want to minimize the fierceness and the depth of the attacks, but so far, I think the result has been to re-energize many of us. The challenge is to keep that up,” said Barbara Bowen. “Also, right now, any kind of workers’ organization or democratic organization is precious. In a way, they’ve always been, but it’s especially true now, so we have to nurture them and support them.”
In his 20 years in DC 37’s Local 1407, said Uddin, “I have never done, my local has never done, what we are doing today to organize, to talk one-on-one with our membership, because we believe that every member must be involved at a time when we are attacked from everywhere, every corner of the Republican machine. We are going to fight it back, and we are going to win.”
What’s been important over the last two years is “showing that labor is strong in this country, regardless of what attacks come out of the Trump administration and the GOP-controlled Congress, where they try to roll back rights of workers and regular Americans,” said Teamsters Local 814 President Mike Corbett, whose union represents moving, storage, and art-gallery workers. “That’s not what we believe in. We believe in raising everybody up. That’s what labor’s all about, and that’s why we’re out here today. Happy Labor Day, everybody!”