Skip to content

Elections, not worker solidarity, dominates West Michigan Labor Fest 2012

September 4, 2012

Yesterday, I attended the annual Labor Day event in Grand Rapids, held at Ah Nab Awen Park in downtown Grand Rapids.

The annual event had moved to this location a few years ago, after decades of hosting the event at John Ball Park on the Westside. I used to attend those Labor Day celebrations, with substantial crowds and lots of local labor unions with food tents set up, providing refreshments to their members and families.

The Westside event also included a parade from downtown Grand Rapids to the park, with people lined up along the route to catch candy being thrown by union members, along with trucks and floats that brought cheers from the crowds.

There was also a detestable element to this annual event, at least detestable to this writer. Joining the parade were local politicians trying to present themselves as advocates for working class people.

When the parade reached John Ball Park, there would be music and some recognition of local labor people, but the bulk of the stage time that wasn’t music consisted of politicians pimping for votes.

The parade and the candy no longer exists, now that the event is held downtown, but one thing that is still highly visible during the West Michigan Labor Fest is the presence of politicians and partisan politics.

There are aspects to Labor Fest that still honors working class people and their families. Some of the local unions provide rides for kids, there was plenty of food and the beer tent is the largest on site. There were craft vendors, a classic car presence and a few of the unions had booths with free stuff.

However, what dominated the events were the presence of politicians and booths for the Democratic Party and their local candidates. I sat through 30 minutes of praise from local labor people about the Democratic candidates and their commitment to organized labor and the “middle class.”

Absent from the event and the praise for Democratic candidates was hard evidence that these candidates or the Democrats have actually done anything for working people. That is partly due to the fact that they have done much and are not offering much in the upcoming election. Here is what Steve Pestka, candidate for the 3rd Congressional seat, has to say about creating jobs:

Getting a good job is crucial to strengthening our families and the middle class. Steve Pestka recognizes that we need to continue building a diverse economy with good-paying jobs in West Michigan. We need leaders in Washington who will embrace policies that support Michigan’s employers and which lead to higher wages, better jobs, and a more educated and stronger workforce.

Seems like a whole lot of nothing to me. Not only does Pestka not provide any clear plan for defending and advocating for the rights of working people, he has no sense of or is not willing to even acknowledge that we have an economic system that benefits the rich at the expense of working people.

On top of the fact that the West Michigan Labor Fest was really a Democratic Party love-in, there was not a word about the current labor organizing campaigns in West MI. Nothing was said about the Grand Rapids Gravel Workers and their ongoing strike against a company that wants to cut their wages by $6 an hour, nor was there mention that the company had hired an out of town company to find scab workers and private security to harass and intimidate striking workers. With no evidence of the Grand Rapids Gravel workers getting their jobs back soon, why wouldn’t the Labor Fest organizers have striking workers there to inform people and recruit people for solidarity actions?

Maybe it is because the local unions have lost their sense of history and what tactics unions used to actually win rights on the job, through wildcat strikes, sit ins, pickets, boycotts, worker solidarity and recruiting new members. Labor rights and worker justice has never really come about through partisan elections, but through direct action and grassroots organizing.

Despite this being a Presidential Election year, the attendance was sparse and them demographic was disproportionately older. If the local labor unions don’t change their tactics and their focus, they might well be a thing of the past.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. September 5, 2012 5:51 pm

    Obviously the writer of this article did not spend any time talking to the planners of the event. Probably didn’t really want an opinion from someone that supports the 1% my guess is that he already had an article before he showed up.

  2. September 5, 2012 6:42 pm

    Patty, had I talked to the planned of the event, what would they have told me about the line up of Democrats and the lack of labor solidarity information/actions?

    And you are right, I would not want an opinion from someone who supports the 1%. As a member of a union, I am interested in what working class people think, not the rich.

  3. September 5, 2012 6:48 pm

    I would have told you that the theme of the event is United, States it All. Which means we all have to stick together. Had other candidates contacted this committee they would have been given the same opportunity. And by the way we all have been rallying with the Grand Rapids Gravel workers. Teamsters Local 406. I have personally aided them in getting food for their families. We have had several rallies that were attended. And just so you know many of those candidates that you think do not care about the strikers took the time to attend the rallies in support of the workers. Where were you when the rallies are going on? See that is the problem there is too much partisanship and no working together. Please if you choose to cover the event next year, attend a couple planning meetings and help if your really that concerned. Step up to the plate instead of throwing around your opinion.

  4. September 5, 2012 6:51 pm

    Oh and just so you know I am also one of the 99%. Definitely not rich either.

  5. September 5, 2012 7:00 pm

    I didn’t think you were rich, I was just responding to you comment about seeking out the opinion of the 1%.

    I was at the first Gravel workers rally and wrote about it and went to the Grandville site with fellow workers to support them and I wrote a third story exposing the companied hired to bring in scab workers and provide them with security.

    What I am making issue with is that these struggles were not part of the Labor Day event. I support labor struggles and have been reporting on them for 2 decades, what I object to is the Labor Day event looked more like a Democratic Party event than an event that celebrated working class people. Why were the Democrats given time to speak instead of having union members, like the Gravel Workers, speak and rally people to support their struggle?

  6. September 5, 2012 7:43 pm

    The Teamsters had a booth and Terry Hoogerhyde did speak twice and he is part of Teamsters Local 406. His speech was directed towards the rights of all working people not just one group. He is not running for any election spot. I am just wanting you to know that we support them fully as well as all working folks which is why the Theme was UNITED, STATES IT ALL. Because we need to stand together. Thanks for the work you do. All I am trying to say if you have issue with the event then please attend the planning meetings and bring them up instead of writing negative articles about a wonderful event that is meant to bring the community together in a positive manner.

  7. Cole Dorsey permalink
    September 5, 2012 10:17 pm

    I think the article was very fair. I was in some of the Labor Day parades, with the IWW, when they were on the westside and I’ve attended the LaborFest at GR Ford Museum the last few years its been there. I thought this year was the poorest attended event and the most politicized that I’ve been too. What should be a time to celebrate and rejuvenate us, the workers, has become just another campaign stop for the list of politicians we’re told to vote for, again. I saw Brandon Dillon at the Teamsters rally and thought his speech lacked substance. What’s he really going to do for the GR Gravel workers? For that matter what can he do? Patty I believe you put a lot of effort into this event and I don’t want to minimize that. I don’t know how long you have been organizing Labor Day events in GR but from my experience it has not been all that inclusive. A few years ago the union I’m a member of, the Industrial Workers of the World, was told that one of our representatives could speak at Labor Day. When the day came we were refused and instead Michael Sak was allowed to speak. It has seemed like politicians get first billing when its supposed to be a day for the workers. If we were able to rally the couple hundred that came to the Labor Day event to go to the Teamsters picket line or ALL go to Andy Dykema’s house we could achieve far more than Dillon or Pestka. A Labor Day that builds solidarity and prepares us to fight, United, is the one I’d love to see. If the planning committee is open to those ideas I would be interested in attending. Either way as long as there is a beer tent I’ll be there.
    GR Gravel picket sites:

  8. louis lingg permalink
    September 5, 2012 11:55 pm

    My question for supporters or organizers of this:

    Why Labor Day? Labor Day was a token, made an official holiday because the government was embarrassed of the Pullman Strike massacre, when federal troops shot and killed 13 striking workers. Celebrating Labor Day is relishing in our own victimhood and saying thanks to those who made us the victims.

  9. SAMUEL FIELDEN permalink
    September 6, 2012 2:43 am


    I’m curious about this blog post. A few days prior, you posted “A Call to Solidarity” that criticized others (not yourselfs) who have spoken critically of various projects, organizing efforts, and what have you in the Grand Rapids area.

    How does this piece fit in with this? To me, this seems like what was described as “horizontal hostility” in that article. I’m not saying that I agree, I just don’t get the inconsistency.

    I know the democrats and the unions are easy targets, but that doesn’t really make it any better. You can’t have it both ways.

    For those who didn’t see “the call”, it’s here:

  10. September 6, 2012 8:30 am

    @ Cole. I am not sure what year you requested time to speak but it has not been in the last 4 years. I have been the organizer for 3 and involved for 4. We welcome new folks into the planning committee all the time. There were approximately 2500 in attendance this year not a couple hundred but yes I agree with you that it would be great to get them all down there with the GR Gravel workers. I will be there as usual because even though I am UAW I will support the Teamsters as should every working person that is fighting to keep their job as well as non union workers. The working class is under attack whether you believe it or not.

  11. Cole Dorsey permalink
    September 6, 2012 9:37 am

    This is not just an attack on the working people but a class war. This is evidenced in the dismal and depleting union membership numbers, and deteriorating benefits and rights of workers. I also will continue to support and join the Teamsters picket line. Just as I have done with GR/Kenowa Teachers, GR City employees, Northwest airline mechanics and others. For our class, the working class, to win this war our tactics need to be innovative, radical, and our own just as they were in the last century which won so many gains for workers. Despite their sympathetic rhetoric these politicians are members of this ruling class we are at war against. In the 1930-40’s workers didn’t expect their rights to be handed to them through the ballot box. They fought for it which is the only way we are going to survive in the 21st century. Patty we are on the same side. I just wish the Labor Fest was less like a Democratic Party rally and more like a call to solidarity for all workers to fight the austerity whether they are union or not.

  12. September 6, 2012 11:23 am

    I understand fully what you are saying. Please feel free to join our planning committe next year as you have a valid point. This is however an election year and we do still need to support those that support us. Hopefully when they get elected they will keep their promises. Few do. I for one think that we are in a mess in this country that is going to take a long time and many different uprising’s from the common folk to get the politicians attention. We as working people have to start somewhere to gain back our dignity in the workplace.

  13. September 7, 2012 6:25 pm


    For the “inconsistaency”, I’d like to refer you to the first sentence in my piece that you’ve referenced: “Editor’s note: The following article should be viewed as an opinion piece, and the views expressed in it belong to the solely to the author, and do not necessarily represent GRIID as a whole.” I did not author this piece, therefore it’s author’s opinions differ from my own.

    That being said, I did not intend to convey that all criticism and critique falls under the horizontal hostility banner and is therefore damaging. I believe in a far more nuanced approach, which I believe I conveyed in the article, however that point clearly did not come across to all readers. One can certainly use criticism in a hostile, damaging, bullying manner, however I think that one can avoid that by accounting for the positive aspects of the object of critique, as well as providing helpful suggestions (which is different than demanding change).

    My opinion of Jeff’s piece above is that while he rails against the Democratic politicians, he advocates for and supports the workers (who Labor Day is supposed to be about). Hostility towards those in power is different than hostility towards those who support justice, however may have misconceived ideas of power and how to acheive that justice. I believe these nuances are important, but this is just my opinion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: