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.)

Watching the cars rolling by, it became clear what a hard road lies ahead for regular working people.

Politicians were enjoying their rides on the old classics — Missouri Rep. Paul LeVota in a vintage cobalt Cadillac, state Sen. Charlie Wheeler in a 1950 Chevy Deluxe, state Rep. Cathy Jolly in a white Bel-Air. It was a reminder of the good old days when American automakers were kings of the world, and a sad reminder that those days are gone — and, perhaps, a metaphor for how Democrats just assume organized labor will carry them. Then there were the new breeds: a Black Lincoln Navigator for Harrisonville Sen. Chris Koster (the only Republican anywhere near the Grand Avenue Viaduct that day, God bless him), a Dodge Durango for Construction & General Laborers 264, and a Hummer for the UAW — all gas-suckin' reminders that none of us learned a goddamn thing from the 1970s and we're all doomed to repeat history forever.

Just a couple of weeks earlier at General Motors' Fairfax plant, workers celebrated their 10 millionth car, a black 2006 Chevrolet Malibu Maxx. They cranked out Malibus all summer, even as they waited for their union reps to decide whether to renegotiate their health insurance. The contract wasn't set to expire for a couple more years, but a few months ago, near bankruptcy, GM claimed that paying for its workers' health insurance and pensions was killing the company, adding $1,525 to every sticker in its U.S. lots.

But c'mon. It's a lot easier for GM execs to blame the company's woes on its workers instead of, say, themselves.

"Right now, health care is the issue, because the company, in the form of its CEO, Rick Wagoner, made a big spectacle at the shareholders' meeting last month," Dave Peterson, president of UAW Local 31, told me back in June. "They're saying we're in this big crisis. My question, and most of the [union] leadership's question, is, show us the crisis. Where have you been spending the money?"

Well, for one thing, the company has been furiously writing checks to China. But what's good for General Motors is good for America, and cutting health insurance is in vogue right now.

"It's a huge race to the bottom in terms of what companies are doing to their workers," Peterson told me. "Communities in this country are losing good-paying manufacturing jobs. And there's more of a loss of white-collar jobs — in engineering, information technology, call centers, help desks. Nothing's insulated or protected from this fast-paced movement of capital out of the high-wage, industrialized countries of the world."

That's what made me feel for the union guys in their American-made cars. Because it's all true. A few days after the parade, the Census Bureau put out new numbers showing that the country's poverty rate has risen again for the fourth year in a row — it's now at 12.7 percent — even as the economy supposedly recovered. Huh? The economy's better, but more people live in poverty? Someone's getting rich, but it ain't the working people.

That sounds like a job for the unions!

If they can figure out how to do it.

In Berkley Park, a few hundred people stuck around to eat hot dogs, talk politics and listen to speeches under a relentless sun. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver gave a rousing sermon, climaxing with a scream: "You built this nation! This nation is yours!"

Bridgette Williams, president of the local AFL-CIO, gave a nod to the minority workers who'd been protesting the rally. "They're not against us, and we're not against them," she said. "Think of them as new members who deserve the opportunity to have a good union job!"

Obviously, however, all was not well. Master of ceremonies Garry Kemp, head of the Greater Kansas City Building and Construction Trades Council, told the crowd, "We're just now starting to come out of the depression from last November." If that's the case, these folks are way, way, way late in filling their Wellbutrin prescriptions — so late, in fact, that they'll probably need a double dose next November, when Claire McCaskill loses her senate race to Jim Talent because nobody on the left has figured out what to do about abortion.

Herb Johnson of the Missouri AFL-CIO acknowledged the trouble ahead. "Some say we aren't in condition to fight, but the misery index is rising, and they're playing right into our hands!" he yelled. "Solidarity will rise again!" The rhetoric rivaled Cleaver's, but you can't just rely on people's misery.

You have to give them hope, too.

And listening to the politicians, it was obvious that none of them really knew what to do. Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon, clearly campaigning as the Democratic challenger to Gov. Matt Blunt in 2008, offered a generic "I look forward to working with each and every one of you to make sure that we can make changes happen!"

Fat chance. The obvious lesson from last November is that working people can't put all of their hope in politicians. None of us can expect our sold-out government to do the right thing anymore. Desperate times call for desperate measures — maybe a little good old-fashioned head-bustin', anyone? After all, the thing that made unions strong in the first place was that they weren't afraid to throw around their muscle.

But as a little folk ensemble took the microphone for a closing version of "Solidarity Forever," there wasn't much solidarity anymore. Only 30 or so people remained to sing along, scattered out in the sun and under Berkley Park's spindly trees.

The rest had drifted away, hot and tired after the effort of showing themselves, at least, that the workers of Kansas City could unite for a day. After this summer, that, in and of itself, was worth celebrating.

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