Seattle used to have Labor Day parades featuring 25,000 to 30,000 union members. That was in great-granddad’s time, not in the gig economy.
There used to be this Labor Day tradition in downtown Seattle: a parade that in some years featured 25,000 to 30,000 union members, and with thousands lining the streets.
That was in great-granddad’s time. Not in today’s gig economy.
Sept. 6, 1937, The Seattle Daily Times:
“Crowds cheer 5-mile long spectacle … Seattle streets collected rapidly gathering crowds, eager to cheer the men and women who keep the wheels of industry turning …”
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Among participants were such now-vanished professions as the Ice Wagon Drivers, said the story. It continued, “The Amusement Trades float, adorned with beautiful girls, theatre usherettes, was followed by more than 2,000 marching members of the Teamsters’ Union.”
There are no more such grand parades.
These days, it’s picnics, and with far fewer participants.
In 2016, the King County Labor Council hosted a block party on First Avenue in front of the Seattle Labor Temple.
“We had around 500 at the cookout,” says Nicole Grant, the council’s executive secretary and treasurer.
This Monday, the council’s cookout is at the Tukwila Community Center.
“I think we’ll do a little better this year,” says Grant. “We’re preparing for 1,000. I think we’re catering with Bavarian Meats. It’ll be really good hot dogs.”
The decline in union membership is well documented.
Membership in this country was 10.7 percent last year, about half of what it was in 1983, the first year comparable figures were available.
But this state has always been known as a union stronghold.
Membership here last year was 18.7 percent, fourth-highest in the nation after New York, Hawaii and Alaska, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (South Carolina has the lowest membership, with 2.6 percent.)
In the age of social media, antipathy toward unions is evident in the comments of pretty much any story mentioning them.
Recently, reader Leslie Clement, 60, a chiropractor and massage therapist, wanted to know, “I guess I’m just a frustrated, old school Seattleite. I am considering how to best acknowledge Labor Day here in Seattle … I haven’t seen anything — not a parade, a march, an old fashioned Demonstration …”
She remembers being a member of the Culinary Union in her younger days at Frederick & Nelson, this town’s premier department store that closed in 1992.
“I worked in the 10th floor, boxing Frangos eight hours a day,” remembers Clement. Those would be the melt-in-your-mouth mint chocolates forever linked with the store.
So Clement has memories.
“My mother and grandmother both worked at the Labor Temple for many years — both of them are long since passed away — but I recall that they always made a big deal about Labor Day … On Monday I will go to a bar near the Labor Temple and raise my glass to Rosie, and the remaining Unions …”
That would be Rosie the Riveter, the inspirational symbol of women who worked in this country’s shipyards and factories during World War II.
Some of those Rosies worked right here in Seattle — for example, on Boeing’s B-17 Flying Fortress.
Back when there were parades of thousands, some of the placards carried have a familiar ring. Equal pay. Working conditions.
Sept. 3, 1917, Seattle Daily Times, about a parade with 22,000 union members: “Nearly 400 of the cracker and candy workers of Bakery and Confectionary Workers’ Local Union No. 156, who are on strike, paraded with mottoes declaring the purposes of their walkout. They emphasized that the girls of the union had not been given the benefit of the women’s minimum wage law.”
Then there were the 600 striking timber workers and shingle weavers, “announcing the purpose of their strike for the eight-hour day.”
By 1946, according to The Seattle Daily Times, the big-event union parade here was in decline:
“Sad spectacle: Labor Day Parade dismal fete. Unions missed big opportunity.”
The story said about the signs carried at the parade: “Most of them were preoccupied with such subjects as Franco’s Spain, the fight between the Nationalists and Communists in China, the Indonesian situation, British imperialism and United States ‘intervention’ in the affairs of such countries as Yugoslavia. There was little or nothing about what unions have contributed in building the Pacific Northwest by constructing and operating reclamation projects, railroads, highways, waterways and other utilities.”
This Monday, Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council, will be in Eastern Washington going to events planned there. There are seven such picnics planned around the state.
Johnson is 65 and became a union member when teaching college in New York City.
About parades, he says, “I’ve been in this state for 30 years. We don’t do parades. I’m not sure they do much. People are interested in actions around Labor Day rather than parades.”
Unions have had to make major adjustments, says Professor George Lovell, division dean of social sciences at the University of Washington, with expertise in labor studies.
“Workers are more often in temporary positions and spread out. It’s very challenging to organize them. It was easier when there were hiring halls and you could get in touch with workers,” he says. “I think this region has been seen as something of an innovator.”
There is Seattle becoming the first in the nation to pass a law allowing Uber and Lyft drivers to unionize, now being challenged in court. Teamsters Local 117 has gotten permission from the city to begin organizing drivers, if and when the law goes into effect.
But organizing those in the gig economy is tough, as Philippe Boucher, of Bainbridge Island, can attest. He now works as a freelance French translator, but back in 2015 he helped organize the Temporary Workers of America.
Then he was working for the marketing firm Lionbridge for more than three years, doing Microsoft contract work for $22 an hour with no paid time off.
After almost two years of contentious talks, the union’s 33 members got a contract. But then they were either laid off or agreed to leave voluntarily amid the threat of deeper cuts.
Boucher is 67.
He says about gig workers, “They’re in their 30s. Never had a job with a paid vacation. Maybe they think they don’t deserve it. They’re invisible. They don’t want to speak up.”
The Temporary Workers of America now exists only as a legal entity; the membership has been dissolved, not even a glimmer of a chance that they could ever take part in this kind of parade:
Sept. 3, 1917, Seattle Daily Times: “The five unions of the Seattle District Council of Painters made the most elaborate patriotic showing of the parade … headed by a stalwart citizen clothed in the traditional costume of Uncle Sam and walking with him was a most impressive Goddess of Liberty …”
Standard-bearers, said the story, carried “the American flag and the banner ‘Our Motto: Our Country and Organized Labor.’ ”