When the marching is over, the union faithful gather to be inspired by a succession of hopefully stirring speakers. Walter Reuther has spoken from that platform, as has Leonard Woodcock and Doug Fraser and a succession of labor giants.
But the best Labor Day rallies always came in election years. For decades, Democratic Presidential candidates formally kicked off their fall campaigns here, in Detroit, on Labor Day.
Harry Truman spoke here, giving the Republicans hell in a year when the pollsters all agreed he didn’t have a chance. The pictures of that event show a tightly packed sea of rapt faces that, in retrospect, ought to have made the pollsters think twice.
John F. Kennedy kicked off his campaign here, as did Lyndon Johnson and Adlai Stevenson. The tradition was broken for awhile, and for a few years they tried to replace the parade with something called “Laborfest” inside a football stadium.
But last year the tradition was revived when one of the biggest and most enthusiastic crowds in history came for the parade and stayed to hear that year’s nominee, Barack Obama.
Last November was a big victory for labor. This year, however has been a grim one, as unemployment has soared and the auto companies teetered on the brink of extinction.
Many good union jobs have been eliminated forever. Unions, which once represented more than a third of workers in the private sector, now represent no more than eight percent.
Whether you are a supporter of organized labor or not, it seems clear that unions haven’t figured out how to make themselves fully relevant in today’s high-tech economy.
Nor have they figured out how to win over most Americans’ sympathies. I received an e-mail last week from a Virginia outfit called “Union Free America,” which bragged that it knew how to get local unions decertified .
There are plenty of people in Michigan who are sympathetic. But this year there are hundreds of thousands who have no jobs, and others who are clinging to poorly paying jobs with dismal working conditions because they don’t know what else to do.
I have even heard some workers wondering how to get a union, because they think that might be their best shot at health care.
Michigan has had a proud labor tradition that began long before the auto industry. We had only been a state for a few months when our first strike broke out in 1837; Detroit’s carpenters wanted a raise to two dollars a day. Exactly a century later came the great sit-down strikes in Flint that heralded the rise of the UAW.
These days, it is common to say that labor is dead. As dead, in fact, as Harry Truman’s chances were the year he spoke to the Labor Day rally in Detroit. When the Secret Service woke him up the morning after the election to tell him the headlines were wrong and he had won, he said this: “Labor did it.“
What I would add is, “You never can tell.”