The pandemic postpones a beloved Labor Day parade and compounds labor’s challenges

During a tough and maybe pivotal year for American workers, it figures that the 50th edition of Cleveland’s nationally influential Labor Day festival has been postponed.

The Honorable Louis Stokes and Ward 11 Congresswoman Marcia Fudge at the Labor Day festival.

The Honorable Louis Stokes and Ward 11 Congresswoman Marcia Fudge at the Labor Day festival.

During a tough and maybe pivotal year for American workers, it figures that the 50th edition of Cleveland’s nationally influential Labor Day festival has been postponed.

And likewise that the North Shore Federation of Labor is shortening its Labor Day Saturday picnic, skipping the food and promoting the census and the vote.

Congresswoman Marcia L. Fudge announced this month, “Due to COVID-19, we have decided in the best interests of our community, participants and spectators not to have our parade as usual.” The Warrensville Heights Democrat said, “We promise to be back bigger and better next year as we celebrate our 50th year of coming together as a community.”

What’s now the 11th Congressional District Community Caucus Labor Day Parade and Festival has been estimated some years to draw up to 40,000 people. It showcases local politicians and sometimes leading national ones, such as Jesse Jackson, Walter Mondale, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton. Jackson told locals that chants there in 1983 of “Run, Jesse, Run!” eventually inspired his 1988 run for the White House.

For years, the festival’s many performers included comedian Dick Gregory, who somewhat cleaned up his nightclub act.

The event used to be considered the start of Cleveland’s political season. Now campaigns are much longer, and voting starts early. But participants say the festival remains a powerful pulpit.

“For 20 years, I’ve been going to that parade,” says State Senator Sandra Williams, a Cleveland Democrat. “This is an opportunity to celebrate the hard work by people on a daily basis. It’s a great opportunity to shake hands and meet people, to get their numbers and give them mine and let them know you care about them.”

On Saturday, the Federation of Labor will gather as usual on Saturday at James Day Park in Parma, but just from 1 to 2 p.m. There’ll be no food this time, just some trenchant comments about labor’s stake in this year’s census and presidential race.

Every second Saturday until the election, the federation will hold another 1 p.m. rally at another site. Masks will be provided, and attendees may participate from their cars.

As the holiday approaches, local leaders are thinking not just about Labor Day but labor. Unions’ ranks and influence keep shrinking as factories fold and the government revokes rights. For instance, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that public workers can enjoy the terms of union contracts without paying union dues.

Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, a Toledo Democrat representing Cleveland’s West Side, says, “I can’t tell you how many people come to our office with no organization to back them up. They’re all alone.” One visiting worker in his late 20s had no idea what a union was.

But unions still defend workers under fire and negotiate better terms and conditions than given to workers without representation. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers not in unions earned 81 percent as much last year as unionized workers. And far fewer had access to retirement or health plans at work.

The pandemic has idled many workers. The unemployment rate soared to 14.7 percent for April, the highest since the federal government began tracking the figure in 1948. In July, it dipped to a still-daunting 10.2 percent.

But local leaders see the challenges of the pandemic and the election as chances to publicize labor’s long, strong history here and build on it.

Long histories

According to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, unions started here in the 1830s. National conventions took place here, and so did many strikes, with violence on both sides.

In 1890, State Representative John Green, Cleveland’s first African-American elected official, sponsored a bill making Ohio an early state to declare Labor Day a holiday. Four years later, the federal government backed the holiday.

Workers celebrated it with parades. They marched on the East Side and West Side in alternate years, then kept to downtown.

For decades, despite many setbacks, unions mostly grew and gained better pay and treatment. But many joined managements in discriminating against the city’s growing numbers of African-Americans. And some were controlled by mobsters such as the Teamsters’ Jackie Presser and the Laborers’ Anthony Liberatore, Sr.

Stokes’ stage

In 1969, Stokes became Ohio’s first black congressman, representing what was then the 21st District. Soon the Democrat founded a district caucus, believed to be the nation’s first. It met weekly for talks, endorsed candidates from either party and proved its power to Cuyahoga County leaders.

At first, the caucus celebrated Labor Day by picnicking at Geauga Lake Park. In 1973, park deputies detained 100 youths from Glenville in a vain search for an assault suspect. Stokes protested by moving the picnic for good to his district’s Woodland Hills Park, now Luke Easter. That year, he told the crowd, “This caucus is alive, well and raising hell!”

By at least 1978, the festival began with a parade. Over the years, it usually started at 10:30 a.m. from Rickoff School at East 147th Street and Kinsman Avenue.

At some point, the federation stopped parading that day and started picnicking the day before at Geauga Lake. In 1983, it switched to parading on Saturdays, first downtown, then in various suburbs.

Two congresswomen

In 1999, Stokes retired undefeated from Congress. For the next few years, he skipped the parade, leaving the limelight to his endorsed successor, Stephanie Tubbs Jones. As the 2008 parade approached, she persuaded him to rejoin it. Two weeks before the parade, she died unexpectedly at age 58.

Stokes showed up as promised. Parade co-chairman Andre White told The Plain Dealer, “We are trying not to make this a memorial. She liked to party and have a good time, and that is what we are going to do.”

Fudge followed Jones and continued the parade. The federation joined in and, in 2013, turned its Saturday parade back into a picnic. Stokes died in 2015 at age 90.

Labor’s struggles

Meanwhile, despite some gains here and there, union ranks keep shrinking. In 1983, the first year when the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics kept the statistic, 20.1 percent of wage and salary workers belonged to unions. By 2019, only 10.3 percent did.

Ohio scored slightly higher last year at 11.9 percent. The local federation has about 100,000 members in more than 146 unions in Cuyahoga, Lake and Geauga counties.

Many labor shops have folded here recently, including the long-embattled Keystone Tailored Manufacturing and this reporter’s Plain Dealer unit of Local 1 of the NewsGuild.

Now Senator Williams worries that falling taxes revenues will cost union jobs in government. The Cleveland Federation of Musicians represents Cleveland Orchestra players, who have agreed to a pay cut, and popular musicians, who have few gigs now.

The musicians’ local president, Leonard DiCosimo, says the federal government should give more pandemic aid to the arts. “We need to treat the fine arts as an endangered species.”

Daleo Freeman, president of the American Postal Workers Union in Cleveland, opposes the controversial cuts in his workplaces. He also says labor has been weakened lately by division.

“We have unions battling other unions. The police unions choose not to engage in any reform. The teacher’s union is saying we don’t want to be in the classrooms.”

Can labor bounce back?

Labor leaders see signs of a rebound for their movement. A Gallup poll last year found that 64 percent of Americans felt confidence in unions, up 16 points from a historic low in 2009.

Says Kaptur, “There has been a resurgence of interest in union contracts. The contract is the worth of your work.”

Around the country in recent years, several newspapers have organized, and teachers have won better terms. Around the country in recent years, several newspapers have organized, and teachers have won better terms. In our region, says Applegate, some machine shops have organized, and so have cafeteria workers at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Says Freeman, “It’s a prime time for people to build the labor movement”

Dick Peery used to chair the North Shore Federation, lead Local 1 of The NewsGuild-CWA and serve on the guild’s international board. Now the retiree says, “Labor is in transition. But workers will always desire and need representation to have fairness in the workplace.”

Grant Segall is a national-prizewinning reporter who spent 34 years with The Plain Dealer. He has also published freelance articles, fiction, and “John D. Rockefeller: Anointed With Oil” (Oxford University Press).

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