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The Grand Rapids Labor Fest & the State of Working People in America

September 7, 2009

Today millions of people across the country will celebrate Labor Day in the US. For many it is the end of the summer and an occasion to host a cook-out, not an opportunity to honor the history of worker struggles in this country. In Grand Rapids, the local unions decided to change from a their traditional parade to a festival, which they claim will be more beneficial to the community.

According to a September 3 article in the GR Press, “The theme is unity in the community. We really want this to be a community event. This is modeled after a couple of Labor Fests in other places around the country,” said Sue Levy, a spokesperson with the UAW.

Levy was also quoted as saying “Last year, we consolidated our resources to get a good president in office. This year, we’re definitely celebrating.” The Press reporter does not explore how Barack Obama is good for organized labor, so readers are left to assume it is a given.

The reality is that just under 10% of the labor force in the US is unionized, which is the lowest it has been in 100 years. Traditional union sectors, like manufacturing and the auto industry, are growing smaller and losing their political clout. Since Obama took office, he has provided significant financial support to corporations in order to bail them out, but the same cannot be said for working people.

Writing for CounterPunch, labor reporter David Macaray provides us with a useful assessment of the new administration’s actions since January as it relates to organized labor. Macaray points out that Obama has done fairly when on the issue of appoints, particularly with the new Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, but scores low on the issue of the auto industry bailout and the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).


The Employee Free Choice Act was a proposal that the Obama Team campaigned in favor of, but has done virtually nothing to make it a reality. In fact, as reporter Adam Turl argues, the Democratic Party has in many ways done their best to prevent EFCA from becoming a reality.

The current struggle for working people also didn’t seem to be included in much of the activities today in downtown Grand Rapids either. Most of the booths were food or craft vendors. There were two booths for the Democratic Party and two for City Commission candidates, which are essentially Democratic Party candidates, even though the City Commission is a non-partisan election.

The Union Label Coalition had a booth promoting the benefits of buying US-made and union made products, but the only booth that had any information on current labor campaigns was the Kent-Ionia Labor Council, which had signs about EFCA. When I asked what was happening locally around EFCA I was greeted with a blank stare. In fact, the only organizing issue that the Labor Fest was actively promoting was the current Health Care Reform debate. For anyone interested there is a Town Hall meeting on Wednesday, September 16 at 7pm in the Kent-Ionia Labor Council Hall  – 918 Benjamin NE, in Grand Rapids.

Unfortunately for working people this years Labor Fest didn’t seem to provide much of an opportunity for people who are negatively impacted by current economic policies to get organized and take action.

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