Remembering past Labor Days

The Labor Day events of northeastern Minnesota have been the places to see and be seen for politicians, union members and families over the years. But this year is unlike the others, even those with world wars and influenza, and so the picnics and events were cancelled.
It was a tough decision, but needed to be done, said Beth McCuskey, president of the Duluth Central Labor Body and retired DFT. It’s hard not to think of what we miss because of it. “The sense of community, the tradition, the ease of it — you can come at noon and stay until 4:30, or come at 2 and get out by 3, whatever works for you,” McCuskey said.
The Duluth picnic has had taken several different formats over the years. In the early part of the 20th century, the main event was a parade, with the different member unions dressing up in their work uniforms or building elaborate floats. At the picnic — held at different parks throughout the city over the years — people held athletic competitions, and at least one year gave out prizes for the union member who brought the largest family.
Labor Day picnics have always held a special place in union members’ memories. Along with a trip to the State Fair, they’re often seen as a last hurrah of summer before school starts. “I don’t know if it was a Local 242 picnic or a Labor Day picnic, but I remember going to Park Point,” said McCuskey about her early Labor Day memories. “The sand was super-hot and I remember getting Cracker Jacks. I was a kid at that one and I know without a doubt it was my first time on Park Point.”
Todd Gustafson, UFCW 1189, said he remembers going to a picnic put on by Operating Engineers Local 49 up at French Lake. “My grandfather was a member for many years and retired out of there in 1985. What I remember was the solidarity they showed each year — showing their union colors, and the president and secretary spoke at that event.”
Gustafson said there were Frisbees and footballs for the kids, and people would bring canoes and kayaks to take out on the lake. “It was the one day out of the year they could get together with other union members and enjoy their day off. There was a lot of camaraderie.”
“My first ever Labor Day picnic was as a child in northern Wisconsin,” said Chris Rubesch, a steward with Minnesota Nurses Association. “My parents were public school teachers and their union, the Wisconsin Educators Association, had an annual labor day picnic before the start of the school year. I remember always having such a good time with all the other kids swimming at the Namakagon river park and eating ice cream. Of course it was a little strange to my young mind to see all my teachers outside of the school!”
Rubesch said the experience was formative. “Looking back now I realize how experiences like this made the idea of gathering with your co-workers and organizing to protect and influence your working conditions the norm for me.”
Dan Olson, business manager and FST at Laborers Local 1091, said that while his father was a locomotive engineer, he didn’t go to Labor picnics until he got involved in 2004. “It’s a tradition we need to keep up. There’s a lot of good support in the community — this is still a union town no matter what people like to think or what politics try breaking us apart.” An event like a picnic is a good way to get people together and talk about the realities facing the movement in a friendly, low-key environment, he said.
“The picnic brings together all walks of life, having public and private workers getting together,” he said.
Christina St. Germaine, president of AFSCME 1091, said not being able to talk with candidates and politicians about Labor issues will be hard this year. Going to one of her first picnics in 2008 made it clear to her how important it was to have representatives who support Labor issues, she said. “It really made me understand what politics means when you’re a union member, and if we want to continue with our values of getting better wages, benefits and retirement, we need to support people who support what we do,” she said. ‘
She worked the bouncy house for a shift and said with the excitement and camaraderie of the picnic, “It just felt good to be there. There was food, there was music, there were raffles, kids playing in bouncy houses — it’s a fun-filled event for all people.”
It takes a lot of work to put the picnic on, but McCuskey said it’s always a pleasure to see everyone pitch in. “They just show up — every year you’re a little nervous, wondering if you’ll have enough people to pull it off, but you just have to walk up to the mic and say we need people to take a half-hour shift, and they’re there. It’s so cool.”
The first picnic Gustafson went to as a member was in 1990, when he was a member of Local 99. “It was at the zoo, the year Paul Wellstone was running for senate. and I knew we’d have a great champion for Labor in him,” he said. Mark Dayton was there running for state auditor, and Gustafson said he joshed Dayton for being a member of the family that kept unions out of Target. “He said, you help me get elected as state auditor, we’ll do something about that,” Gustafson said. At this time, the only union Target is on the East Coast.
Olson agrees that the picnic is an important opportunity to talk to politicians. “With a picnic, you have a closed receptive audience. It’s a good time to bring everyone together and discuss politics a couple months before the elections, even in off years. It’s going to be strange in a presidential year,” he said. “It’s the only event you couldn’t do with Zoom. You’ve got to bring people together and interact fact-to-face with them.”
Rubesch experienced that political push during his first local Labor Day picnic in 2016. He was a new MNA Steward, volunteering with endorsed candidates and meeting many of community for the first time. “This was by far the biggest Labor Day picnic I had ever been to and that year, like many, we had several high level political officials at the state and local level join us,” he said. “It was impressive for our body to attract the attention and ears of these officials.
“I could tell the Labor Body was a passionate group of workers and that the support for each other and our community was strong,” he said. The warm welcome from those at the picnic drew him in to connecting more with his own Union and the Central Labor Body, where he is a delegate. “I look forward to getting back to the picnic next year and welcoming more community members as well as new Labor siblings into our family,” he said.
Ideally, this year is an anomaly, and by next year, the pandemic is under control enough that important Labor and community events like golf scrambles, car shows, the Rhubarb Fest and the Labor Day picnic can come back. “We’ve got to keep it going,” Olson said.

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