Monday, September 3, 2012

Labor Day paraders send a message during election year: 'Bring our jobs home' - Pittsburgh Post Gazette

David Minor, a letter carrier based in Erie, had never found himself in Pittsburgh on Labor Day. Until this year.

With a presidential election two months away and the U.S. Postal Service facing severe financial difficulties, about two dozen members of the National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 284 decided to spend their day off from work representing the work that they do.

Departing Erie early Monday morning, they traveled to Pittsburgh to join the city's annual Labor Day parade for the first time.

"We just felt that, hey, our voices had to be heard," said Mr. Minor, a union steward.

The parade, which organizers estimated included 60,000 union members and their families, began at Consol Energy Center and ended at the Boulevard of the Allies and Stanwix Street, Downtown. Members of Branch 284 formed the rear of the two-hour-long procession, which ended just after noon.

The parade -- taking place shortly after the Republican National Convention ended and just as the Democratic National Convention begins -- had a definite political vibe, with local politicians out in force and signs for political candidates mor e prevalent than ticker tape.

Yet for all the messages being chanted, it was still a parade -- with a handful of floats, several marching bands, and thanks to the variety of T-shirts worn by the dozens of different unions, a colorful cavalry of marchers.

"I figured it would be colorful," said Sharon Grant of East Liberty, who stood on Grant Street watching the parade with her daughter, Brittani, and her 5-year-old grandson, Ian. They were there to see the colors, to encourage the marching union members and to show their support for President Barack Obama's re-election, a frequent refrain at the parade by both union members and parade watchers.

This year, the main message of the Labor Day parade was "bring our jobs home," said Jack Shea, president of the Allegheny County Labor Council. There was a secondary message to the parade as well, he said, and it was that "work connects us all," whether it is union work or non-union work.

That was the theme even as marchers made their way through Downtown streets, grouped by their T-shirt colors and union memberships.

"We're all together today," said Fred Redmond, international vice president of human affairs for the United Steelworkers. "It's one labor movement."

Mr. Redmond, who has marched in the parade each year since he took office in 2006, called it an important day for the American worker, and a time for members of his union to celebrate their contributions.

"This is a day for them to celebrate themselves and their co-workers and the important contributions that they make, as workers, to the very core of America," he said.

Pittsburgh has "one of the most important Labor Day parades" in the United States, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who marched in the parade, alongside local union members, for the first time Monday.

"Here, in Pittsburgh, you see it on the street," said Ms. Weingarten, indicating the marchers milling about the start of the parade route. "People still understand not just what the labor movement did yesterday, but what its potential is for tomorrow, and that is connecting communities together with each other -- parents and teachers, clergy and workers -- to demand a better day.

"And not only to demand it, but to advance solutions that we know will make things better," she said, shortly before she joined local teachers, including members of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, who recently saw about 300 of their members furloughed from Pittsburgh Public Schools.

"We want to make a real statement that we are supporting our furloughed members," said Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. As they marched in the parade, her members wore pink leis to send a message against pink slips and in support of furloughed teachers.

"We want them back in their classrooms as soon as possible," she said.

Also marching in the parade were members of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85, who last month approved a new contract with the Port Authority, including employee givebacks such as a two-year wage freeze, to help avert major transit cuts.

The union members, some riding in Port Authority buses, were greeted with applause as they approached the end of the parade route.

"Our members took big sacrifices to make sure transit continues to go here in Allegheny County," said Jeff DiPerna, a business agent for Local 85. "So this parade is big for us."

And when it was over, Mr. Minor, who has been a letter carrier for 34 years and a Pittsburgh Labor Day parade marcher for one, said the parade was much bigger than he had anticipated. Next year, he said, his union planned to return, and they'd try to march with Pittsburgh's National Association of Letter Carriers branch.

"We're hoping it's going to be an Erie tradition from now on," he said.

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