For many, Monday was a day to sleep in, barbecue and enjoy a day away from work with family and friends.
But for the hundreds of workers and union representatives marching down Abbott Road in South Buffalo, Labor Day had a different meaning.
“It’s a time for us to celebrate the many successes of the labor movement over the years and show our support of organized labor in Western New York,” said Michael Giaquinto, a vice president of EmblemHealth, a health insurance company that sponsored the event.
Those accomplishments include the eight-hour workday, minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, unemployment insurance, workplace safety measures and an end to child labor.
“On Labor Day we remember those who came before us and established the standard of living we enjoy today, and we look forward to future opportunities to make change that benefits the middle class,” said Gary Guralny, president of Local 6992, United Steelworkers.
The issues facing labor today are many and varied: reduced membership, anti-union legislation and declining public support for the labor movement. Manufacturing jobs, traditionally filled by unionized workers, have been disappearing; replaced by low-wage retail and hospitality jobs characteristically held without union representation.
The threats to individual workers in each union – from outsourcing to downward wage pressure and rising health care costs – are just as diverse. But the goals of organized labor remain the same, marchers said.
“Unions tend to lead the fight, but it’s about everybody in the community,” said Jim Briggs, president of the Niagara Orleans Labor Council. “We fight this fight every day to ensure equality for all.”
Nurses, teachers, mail carriers, steelworkers, painters, food-service workers, laboratory technicians, custodians and workers of all stripes stood together Monday to support one another in a show of strength and unity.
“Working people have got to stop being jealous of one another and fighting amongst each other and look at what’s best for us all in the long term,” said David Chudy, vice chairman of the Western New York Working Families Party. “People have to have good-paying jobs they can support a family on.”
Beginning in 2009, a Pew Research poll found fewer Americans than ever viewed labor unions favorably – the lowest approval number of all time.
“Everyone says we’re overpaid and underworked until they need our services, then we’re the best thing going,” said Denise Szymura, president of Local 815, CSEA, which represents Erie County workers. “We make sure their roads are plowed, their kids get to school on the bus, their family is taken care of when they’re sick.”
Today, the percentage of Americans who view labor unions favorably has risen to 54 percent. Its all-time high was 75 percent, according to research firm Gallup. Support for unions fares best during good economic times and wanes when the economy is suffering, Gallup said.
Support for unions was strongest in 1953 and 1957 – years when union membership was high, the economy was good and Americans prospered.
“What made the country great and built the middle class was organized labor,” said William Travis, council president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 35. “Now that our numbers are down, the working class have become the working poor.”
Barb Roberts, of Buffalo, was a spectator at the parade, but she was there to support organized labor as much as any of the marchers. As a mental health specialist at Baker Victory Services, she said she benefited more than once when her union supported her through arbitration with her employer.
“Today is all about the unions. They back their workers 100 percent,” she said.
Tom Kingston, of Buffalo, who retired when he was 72 as a state civil servant, said his union membership has allowed him to retire with a better quality of life than that of his peers.
“Without the union, it’s that old saw: The rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” Kingston said.
Roughly 75 union chapters were represented at the Western New York AFL-CIO’s annual Labor Day parade. Richard Lipsitz Jr., president of the Western New York Area Labor Federation, was the parade’s grand marshal.
Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894.