“People forget the meaning of Labor Day, Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, and I think it’s up to us to make sure that doesn’t happen,” said David Mertz, director of the New York City division of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. “Otherwise it just becomes another day off work, and another day to buy something on sale. That’s great, but it’s important to remember that history and to not take for granted where we are now.”
Each year, Mr. Mertz organizes the union’s activities during the Labor Day Parade. While the union has had a marching band or a float during previous celebrations, this year the RWDSU was hoping to obtain a different set of wheels to ride along the route: a Gray Line bus, symbolic of the tour-bus workers that it represents.
Place to Show Pride
He explained that the Sept. 7 event was incredibly important to the union because it gives members a chance to show their pride.
“It’s an opportunity for members to see other union members, both from within the union and from other private- and public-sector unions. We might know our shop steward, but there’s no better chance to see the breadth of the labor movement than at the parade,” he said.
RWDSU, a district council of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, represents about 60,000 retail, grocery store, bakery and dairy-processing employees across the country. RWDSU is headed by Stuart Appelbaum, who also serves as executive vice president of the UFCW.
Mr. Mertz, who has worked at the union for more than 20 years, said that one challenge in getting members to the weekend parade was that Saturday was typically the busiest work-day for retail employees.
Despite that, he noted, hundreds of members usually joined the festivities.
Cardinal Tipped Cap
A favorite memory occurred a few years ago, when Cardinal Timothy Dolan donned RWDSU’s red cap, which happened to match his robes. “I think of that image every year,” Mr. Mertz said.
This year’s event will kick off as usual at 44th St. and Fifth Ave. The grand marshal will be Elizabeth Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer at the AFL-CIO. The parade chair will be former Council of School Supervisors and Administrators President Ernest Logan, who now heads the American Federation of School Administrators.
The theme of this year’s event is “Building Worker Power Together.” “There’s been a lot of pressure on working people, and the way to fight back is organizing,” Mr. Mertz said, referring to the Trump Administration’s anti-worker policies. Organizing, he said, was the union’s “number one priority.”
Big Public-Sector Edge
It’s an uphill battle: although New York had high rates of union membership, unionization in the private-sector has declined across the country. Just 6.4 percent of private-sector workers belong to a union, compared to 33.9 percent of public-sector employees, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But Mr. Mertz was optimistic that the labor movement would see gains, ironically because of the anti-worker attacks, which have drawn attention to issues such as income inequality and the low Federal minimum wage.
“I think a lot of young people understand the importance of collective action, and are beginning to see the importance of having that in the workplace,” Mr. Mertz said.
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