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Labor Day a time to celebrate, look ahead, union members say

'If you go all the way back, this country was built by working people'

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CEDAR RAPIDS — For half of Americans, Labor Day marks the unofficial end of summer.

“It’s the last trip to the beach,” AFSCME member Angela Melton said.

“It means the (swimming) pools close,” added Christopher Moore of Roofers Local 182.

Better news for Melton, Moore and hundreds of other union members who gathered at Hawkeye Downs Expo Center to observe Labor Day, is that 42 percent of American adults celebrate Labor Day as it was originally intended, as a holiday honoring the contribution of workers in society. That’s the same percentage as last year and matches the highest finding since 2008, according to Rasmussen Reports.

The Hawkeye Area Labor Council’s annual picnic is the area’s largest celebration of Labor Day, which been observed as a national holiday since established by an act of Congress in 1894. Today, Labor Council President Kelly Steinke said, “it’s a celebration of people who have worked hard all year. It’s a day for them to get some good food and get together with old friends.”

“It’s a prideful day,” said Melton, who comes from a union family. “If you go all the way back, this country was built by working people.”

Moore is struck that many people put out flags “and in a way it is a patriotic holiday, but it’s a day for laborers to come together and celebrate.”

Moore said. “Without unions, we wouldn’t have Labor Day.”

Or the 40-hour workweek, time-and-a-half pay for overtime, collective bargaining and a host of workers’ rights, according to union members and politicians who attended the picnic.

“It’s my firm belief that unions built the middle class,” said Democrat Patty Judge, who is challenging U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley. “Labor Day is a day to celebrate that and think about the future.”

The Great Recession “still is very real,” Judge said. People are concerned about stagnant wages, slow job growth and the possibility of more jobs being shipped overseas.

Taking a break from serving up brats, Monica Vernon echoed those concerns.

“Labor Day is a great time to take stock of all the hard work people do and what the unions have won for the middle class,” said Vernon, the Democratic challenger to U.S. Rep. Rod Blum.

“This is the economy of our region — our working men and women,” she said. “It’s a time to think about what we can do to help them.”

Vernon, Judge and several state and local Democratic candidates joined the labor council’s celebration. The Democratic Party-union link is a standard of modern American politics, but Mike Olson wished there was bipartisan interest in union members’ votes.

“The other side doesn’t compete for our votes,” Olson, the registrar for IBEW 405, said about the Republican Party. “I’d like to see more competition for our votes.”

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