If you wanted to see labor in action on Labor Day, you’d have done well to visit a hospital’s obstetrics wing. You certainly weren’t going to find much of consequence in New York yesterday that involved unions.
In this city where Labor Day parades got their start, in 1882, workers haven’t strutted their stuff on the holiday for quite a while. For them, as for everyone else, it has long been a day for beaches and barbecues. Besides, it is nearly impossible to compete with the blockbuster West Indian American Day Carnival Parade in Brooklyn, which absorbs the day’s energy, not to mention many politicians.
But at least organized labor usually shows the flag on the Saturday after Labor Day, with a march along Fifth Avenue. Not this year. The New York City Central Labor Council called off the 2007 parade, replacing it with a rally on Saturday at the World Trade Center site, focused on health issues affecting those who toiled there after 9/11.
The council, a federation of 400 union locals with one million members, has had a lot on its mind in recent months, starting with the indictment of its former president, Brian M. McLaughlin, on embezzlement charges. It is generally not desirable to have your leader accused of being a crook.
Several unions have also balked at the expense of a parade. And some unionists are just bored with marches, period.
But, hey, the cancellation is no big deal, council leaders have said in the last few weeks. Parades aren’t necessarily dead, they say; there may be one next year before the presidential election. Labor in New York remains strong, they say.
Its muscularity is debatable, even if it manifests itself clearly in certain quarters, like the City Council.
The Democratic-dominated Council recently tightened the rules governing campaign contributions by lobbyists but managed, mirabile dictu, to exempt Democratic-dominated unions from the new restrictions. Apparently, the lawmakers feel that if politicians take a business’s money, they will be beholden to it, but if they take a union’s cash, they will somehow remain pure.
An interesting test of labor’s strength may come tomorrow with the start of a planned two-day strike by thousands of cabdrivers unhappy with new regulations requiring them to install expensive, and perhaps damage-prone, high-tech equipment in their taxis. How many drivers stay off the streets, and how much support they get from other New Yorkers, will be worth watching.
But getting back to the parade cancellation, is it really not a big deal, as union officials say?
Some who study the labor movement feel that it is.
An important parade draws important politicians. “It’s an opportunity to show off who you are and what you are,” said Daniel J. Walkowitz, a labor historian at New York University. “It’s a chance for labor to acknowledge who it is and be acknowledged for what it is.”
A rally at ground zero is simply not the same, Professor Walkowitz said. “They could do that as well,” he said of the rally. “It hardly needs to be seen as a substitute.”
Peter Rachleff, a labor historian at Macalester College in St. Paul, said that “unions have been at their strongest when they’ve had a substantial public presence.”
Canceling a parade, Professor Rachleff said, “sends a very powerful message of weakness, if that’s not a paradox: a powerful message of weakness.”
Inevitably, he said, the cancellation raises questions about the unions, including “Can these guys deliver the votes, can they reward their friends and punish their enemies, are they a force to be taken seriously?”
Consider, too, the view of someone who is hard-wired into the soul of the American labor movement. Samuel Gompers, a founder of the American Federation of Labor, thought about this same issue a full century ago.
“Labor Day without demonstrations, parades and meetings will, as sure as the sun rises and sets, lose its distinctive characteristic and simply become a holiday for jollification, without other purpose, design or result,” he wrote in an A.F.L. publication issued before Labor Day in 1907. He continued:
“It is true that some expense is involved in a bona fide labor celebration of Labor Day. But what is that expense compared with the wonderful advantages secured in riveting the attention of the world, friends and opponents alike, upon the great cause for which labor stands?”
We bet that were he alive today, Gompers would be as troubled as ever by all the jollification.