Labor Day paraders face a long, uphill road.

Union Haul 

Labor Day paraders face a long, uphill road.

It was the cars that got me at the Labor Day Parade a couple of Saturdays ago.

But it wasn't the tedious Shriners in their 1960s Cutlasses, '48 Lincolns, Vietnam-era Mustangs and convertible Delta 88s that caught my attention. No, it was the regular guys, the ones whose chrome was considerably less polished, those were the ones I had come to see.

I didn't know that, though, when I grabbed some shade on a curb at Third Street and Grand. The color guard and the antique firetruck carrying Local 42 dignitaries came from the direction of the City Market, then turned north and crossed the Grand Avenue viaduct and emptied out into Berkley Riverfront Park. A scattering of union families had set up chairs along the way, but it seemed that most of the city's labor sympathizers were in the parade. The few kids on the sidewalks got more Tootsie Rolls and Double Bubble thrown at them than they'll be able to choke down between now and that mythical day they go to work — if this country heeds the pleas of the glittered-up children of United Auto Workers who were riding in the back of an F-350 and holding signs begging: "Save a job for me."

So the regular guys in the classic cars didn't have many spectators cheering them on. I'd come mainly out of curiosity, knowing it's been a jacked-up summer for labor.

Nationally, the Teamsters and the Service Employees International decamped from the AFL-CIO, costing the latter more than 3 million members and putting some serious hurt on its budget. In doing so, Andy Stern, who led the defectors, turned his back on AFL-CIO leader John Sweeney, who'd been Stern's mentor. (Following the news was like reading a father-son coming-of-age novel set in Chicago during the last hot days of July.) To hell with bankrolling lesser-evil politicians already owned by the corporations, Stern's group decided — it was time for unions to hit the streets, the assembly lines, the fast-food restaurants and the cubicle farms to regain the power that they'd lost since the 1950s. To some observers it looked like the desperate flailing of the dying left. To me it looked like a courageous acknowledgment that what they'd been doing hadn't been working. Besides, what did they have to lose? The sickly 13 percent of this country's workers who are still in unions?

Meanwhile in Kansas City, the construction unions have been shamed by minority workers' claims that they can't get a piece of the $3 billion downtown building boom. Partly they blame companies like Turner Construction and J.E. Dunn, and partly they blame the unions themselves, for not letting them in. Since they started making noise, City Hall has admitted that it hasn't even kept track of its own minority hiring mandates on public construction projects. The city's labor scene seemed so tenuous that organizers slated the parade for the weekend before Labor Day, knowing that lots of union members would celebrate their hard-earned three-day weekend by getting the hell out of town.

So I'd come to see what the turnout actually looked like. But I'd also come to pay a little respect. I know that the minimum wage, eight-hour workdays, boss-supplied health insurance and relatively safe workplaces that most people take for granted are the results of hard-won battles fought by unions. If you haul out the old stereotype about corrupt labor unions, we can have a little talk about Enron, about Bill Esrey's questionable tax shelters before he skulked away from Sprint and whether a second jury might convict Westar CEO David Wittig of looting the Kansas electric company. (As of press time, the jury in his retrial was still out.)

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