By Catherine Conlan
As I was working on the article about union members’ memories of Labor Day, I was thinking about mine. Growing up in Nebraska and not being really connected to the union movement, Labor Day was a small break after a couple of weeks of school.
I married into the union movement; Matt got his Carpenter journeyman’s card shortly after we were married and we regularly went to Labor Day celebrations at Harriet Island. When we moved up here, we attended the Labor Day picnic and met politicians who came to visit; our children’s growth is documented with photos of different politicians and candidates.
This year, of course, is different. The coronavirus pandemic has made it difficult for us to gather in groups, and as Dan Olson of Laborers 1091 said, you can’t have a picnic on Zoom. Some organizations tried new approaches. The Carlton County DFL and Carlton County Labor Body held a drive-in chili-feed fundraiser, with speeches broadcast through the car radio.
I missed the event because 2020 came for Matt’s classic car, a 1970 Chrysler Newport Custom. We usually bring it out for special events, of which Labor Day is the high holy day. But on the drive down to Carlton, the noble engine quit (diagnosis forthcoming).
Raising our kids, we used to joke that union was our religion. We sang them union songs as lullabies, looked for union labels with them on the products we purchased and taught them about the movement as they grew. And on the high holy day, we would bring out the big car and go to the picnic, before sending them off to school (and their union teachers) the next day.
But what happens when you can’t celebrate a holy day the way you always have? The Labor movement’s biggest strength is people gathering together, whether around a kitchen table to talk organizing, or under a tent getting platefuls of corn on the cob and hotdogs, served and prepped by volunteers. Without a picnic, it can be easy to feel a little discouraged.
There are plenty of memes that circulate on social media this time of year reminding us to take a moment to think about the people who fought and died for the benefits union members and all workers have now — good wages, a voice in the workplace, a weekend. These memes can sometimes seem a little cheesy, but I found that this year they actually felt deeply relevant.
The economic devastation has highlighted the importance and strength of the union movement, as well as provided a call to arms to union members and nonmembers alike to have the courage to imagine workplaces and schedules that are flexible enough to meet challenges like pandemics and unrest without holding people down or leaving them behind. The pandemic exposed economic inequalities in new ways that have inspired many, particularly young people, to start organizing in new ways.
We may not be able to meet the way we want to and talk about new ideas about work, politics and society. But as we navigate online meetings more efficiently and establish new protocols for Get Out the Vote efforts and organizing drives, we can be sure we’ll find a way to have our picnics, to celebrate our day, the way we will.
Labor Day 2020
By Catherine Conlan