Labor advocates lament that holiday has lost its meaning

Every Labor Day since her father died, Kate Terrell digs out his old union t-shirt to honor what she thinks so many have forgotten — that organized labor brought today’s workers the weekend, overtime, paid holidays and competitive benefits.

“What the labor unions have won for us, if you don’t take care of it, it’s going to go away,” Terrell said Monday at the Greenbelt Labor Day Festival Parade, wearing a decades-old shirt from her late father’s printers union.

“People have forgotten,” she said. “They take it for granted.”

Labor advocates say the history of Labor Day has become lost amid the shopping discounts and barbecues signaling the end of summer. They say that as the power of unions wanes, so does the collective memory of what the labor movement won for workers.

“People come into new jobs and think, ‘I’ve got these benefits because I’m smart and I went to school,’” said labor historian Bill Barry, a retired labor studies professor at the Community College of Baltimore County. “They don’t realize that it’s because people organized and sacrificed.”

At the peak of American union membership in 1959, Barry said, 37 percent of private sector jobs were unionized. Today, it’s about 7 percent.

But the history of the labor movement stretches back much further. Barry said Baltimore had a leading role in one of the nation’s first labor strikes in July 1877, when tens of thousands of railroad workers shut down freight traffic.

By the time President Glover Cleveland signed legislation making Labor Day a national holiday in 1894, workers had been informally taking a day off to march, organize and celebrate for more than a decade. The first Labor Day parade took place in New York on Sept. 5, 1882, and drew as many as 20,000 people.

The U.S. Department of Labor said that, traditionally, the holiday was marked by parades demonstrating to the public the strength of unions — followed by recreation and a festival for workers and their families. But, it said, “the character of the Labor Day celebration has undergone a change in recent years.”

Barry, for instance, used to organize a parade in Dundalk to honor the labor movement. But when he retired in 2012 no one in that former union bastion near Bethlehem Steel volunteered to keep up the tradition. On Monday, Barry said he traveled to Greenbelt because it was the closest Labor Day parade to Baltimore.

In Greenbelt, the parade was a typical community celebration of local businesses, Girl and Boy Scout troops, winning youth athletic teams, beauty queens, bagpipe players and aspiring politicians tossing candy and stickers.

“To be honest — I don’t know if I should be ashamed — but I don’t really think about the meaning of Labor Day,” said Leslie Halsey, a lifelong resident of Greenbelt who has been attending the parade for decades.

“It celebrates all things Greenbelt,” said Maria Hanna, who grew up there and said she has attended the parade for over 50 years.

The parade used to have a demonstration area where trade unions showed of their skills, Greenbelt’s Mayor Pro Tem Judith F. “J.” Davis said as she climbed in the back of a gleaming fire truck at the start of the parade.

“Now you don’t see it, because labor wants to rest,” added City Council member Leta Mach. “I don’t blame them.”

City Councilman Konrad E. Herling, climbing into the truck last, said maybe it’s time to pay more attention to the legacy of the labor movement.

“I hope that in the future, labor is more of a focus here than just a celebration of our community,” he said.

Tom Killeen, a member of union representing sheet metal workers, was one of a few dozen union members to march in the Greenbelt parade.

“There’s not much industry left here. There’s not a connection to labor,” Killeen said. As people in the community know fewer and fewer people involved in the labor movement, he said, the meaning of the holiday “has been watered down over time.”

Jaime Contreras, vice president of SEIU Local 23BJ, said that “in some ways, it’s our fault as labor leaders, because we’re not really making the connections.”

It’s that sort of talk, Terrell said, that made her father shake his head later in life, and why she makes a point each year of wearing his old labor union shirt.

“It made daddy kind of sad,” she said. “He’d say, ‘they don’t realize. They don’t realize.’”

As much as she and her family appreciate the legacy of the labor movement, she and her grandchildren also will spend the afternoon at the pool.

“Labor Day is the last hurrah of summer for us, too,” she said.

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