The annual Laborfest Parade in Milwaukee has a tradition of fostering community among union members, connecting them in a shared experience as laborers.
Members from over 20 Wisconsin unions gathered at the Zeidler Square in Westown on Labor Day, September 5. Workers and their families patiently waited for the beginning of the parade that would march down Wisconsin Avenue to the Summerfest grounds for Laborfest, an annual event put on by the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, AFL-CIO.
Unions from a variety of crafts and services were represented, from teachers to iron workers to electricians. Each year of the parade, members wear matching t-shirts and prepare banners. It supports a strong sense of pride, as the parade reminds union members of their shared experiences and mission as laborers.
“With everybody coming together, we’re a family as iron workers,” said Brad Cyganek, President of Iron Workers Local No. 8 Union. “With any family you have differences of opinions of how things should be done. But when you come to a Labor Day event, that’s all put aside. It’s really a harmonious thing to see everybody together celebrating what labor stands for and the good cause of raising the standards of laborers.”
The first unions formed in the state were in Milwaukee, with the bricklayers in 1847 and carpenters in 1848. Wisconsin workers made significant contributions to the history of labor in the United States. Worker compensation was enacted as legislation and, along with unemployment insurance, served as examples for similar laws in other states.
Many unions have been marching in the parade for decades and have long-standing traditions. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Union, for example, tries to be first in the parade every year because they really appreciate the camaraderie of the experience.
“The parade is the big attraction,” said Leo Wilcox, former president of IBEW. “It gives you the sense of unity of being a member of the workforce here in the United States. It really gives you a feeling of belonging. That’s what unions do really.”
Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm attends the parade and Laborfest each year. His office strives to protect the conditions of these workers closely with labor organizations through the Milwaukee community. The Laborfest parade is where Chisholm gets to connect with laborers and experience their unity firsthand.
“There are strong differences of opinion on many issues,” said Chisholm. “But this is one day where everybody can come together and celebrate the things they all share, as opposed to the things that separate them.”
Other elected officials also participated in the parade, walking the route from Zeidler Square. Daniel Reimer, State Representative of Wisconsin’s 7th Assembly District, marched with the union workers. State Senator Chris Larson marched with the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA) in solidarity with their cause of supporting the Milwaukee Public School System.
According to MTEA president Kim Schroeder, the union is fighting to “preserve all of the good things we have, all of the wonderful schools and programs, and also to continue to build.”
To John Thielman, board member of MTEA’s substitute teacher’s branch, the parade is a prime opportunity to fight for these programs and schools as a unified labor force.
“This event reminds people that when you stand together, you have power,” said Thielmann. “We stand up for the people who actually do the work, provide the service, make the products and say ‘this can be done safely.’ It can be done with everybody benefiting, not just a select few. And it can be done in a way that it good for the public and the community at large.’”
George Walls, president of the Communications Workers of America Wisconsin Local 4603, felt that union members are often undervalued for the services they provide. So the day validates their professional efforts..
“It’s really a celebration of all of the work that these men and women do,” said Walls. “it celebrates our pride. We get very little appreciation in the workplace. This day, it’s our day.”