WJBC Voices: Celebrating local workers

By Mike Matejka

Labor Day is perhaps the most mis-understood holiday in the nation’s calendar.  Traditionally viewed as a summer’s end celebration, its real roots are in worker protest, trying to claim and celebrate their role in society.

In Bloomington, local unions organize and march together, along with community groups and aspiring politicians, in Monday’s 10 a.m. Labor Day Parade.

Before it was a legal holiday, Labor Day began in 1882 as a day of protest.  New York City workers took an unsanctioned day off work and marched through the city streets.  They not only celebrated their craft and pride, but also their low wages and long-hours.  This one-day work stoppage spawned the idea that the nation should recognize its workers.   Oregon was the first state to establish Labor Day in 1887.   Illinois followed in 1893 and in 1894, the first Monday in September was recognized as a federal holiday.

Looking back through local history, Bloomington’s first Labor Day Parade came in 1893, from downtown to Franklin Park, where Adlai Stevenson I addressed the parade participants. As the 20th century dawned, Bloomington’s Labor Day celebrations became quite elaborate, featuring not only a parade, but balloon ascensions, Wild West Shows and an evening dance.  Notable labor leaders from around the nation addressed the crowd and early Bloomington Labor Day festivities included not only speeches by Democrats and Republicans, but also by Socialist Party adherents.

Local union sponsored Labor Day festivities ended after the 1922 Railroad Shops strike, where Shops workers nationally had their union efforts broken by federal injunction.  During 1934 and 1935, an attempt was made to revive the parade, thwarted by rain storms.

In 1977 the Bloomington Labor Day Parade was revived.  It’s grown through the years to becoming the community’s largest, featuring not only local workers, but also high school and the ISU band, community organizations, businesses and aspiring politicians.

Hopefully you’ll come out to the parade, cheer on those young people marching with their band instruments and all the groups involved.  Give a special cheer for the everyday people who make this nation run: the Laborers, Electricians, Letter Carriers, Fire Fighters, ISU clerical workers, Pipefitters, Carpenters, Bakery Workers, bus drivers and many more.  They not only carry a union card, they also have that Central Illinois work ethic that keeps this community prosperous and a great place to live.  See you at the parade!

Mike Matejka is the Governmental Affairs director for the Great Plains Laborers District Council, covering 11,000 union Laborers in northern Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. He lives in Normal. He served on the Bloomington City Council for 18 years, is a past president of the McLean County Historical Society and Vice-President of the Illinois Labor History Society.

The opinions expressed within WJBC’s Voices are solely those of the Voices’ author, and are not necessarily those of WJBC or Cumulus Media, Inc.


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