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parade graphic
1995 Labor Day Parade design by Scott McCarney

Parades have long been seen by labor as a means of demonstrating the power of union solidarity. As Gompers put it in a 1914 letter to central labor councils urging them to hold Labor Day parades, “Such labor demonstrations do pay, even if only through publicity for the cause of Labor. Men and women marching shoulder to shoulder typify impressively the purposefulness and the unity of the labor movement. They are a physical demonstration of devotion to principles — a proof that none can fail to understand.”

As early as 1882 Knights of Labor District Assembly 44 had organized major parades in which both their members and workers in trade unions participated. By 1884 there was an annual Labor Day Parade, followed by a picnic/outing at Ontario Beach Park which, after 1888, was organized by the Central Trades & Labor Council (CTLC).

Labor Day Parades were held downtown, assembling off East Avenue and generally following a route down Main Street to Four Corners, around the Powers block and back up Main Street, ending at the Convention Center (the building that now houses Geva Theatre).

Parades were led by the CTLC delegates, bearing the Council flag and banner, and were organized in five divisions, each with a Council Officer as Marshal and with its own band of union musicians hired by unions through special assessments. At the end of the parade the bands massed and marched past the reviewing stand before being dismissed. A typical parade looked like that of 1917.

Often there were more than 60 unions and 8 or 9 bands in these parades and participation averaged 12,000 workers. Some unions required their members to turn out and fined them if they failed to show up. Marchers in most units dressed uniformly, often at their own expense. Many unions brought floats and banners proclaiming labor issues such as “Eat only Bread with Union Label.”

Parade float newspaper image
Labor Day Parade, 1920, photographer unknown, published in Labor Herald, September 25, 1920

Labor Day Parades were traditionally followed by an outing to Ontario Beach Park, to which marchers brought their families. In 1913, for instance, there were 15,000 in the parade and 30,000 at the outing. These outings included games and contests with prizes, picnics, concerts and dances, and fireworks: the 1911 fireworks displayed “an enormous banner of fire, upon which was inscribed ‘the union forever’.”

The Labor Day parades and outings were organized by a Labor Day Committee of the CTLC, which each year invited affiliates to support and participate in the events. Although the 1922 parade was one of the Council’s most successful, with every affiliate participating, many locals showed little interest the next year and in August, 1923 the Council voted “that we do not turn out Labor Day.”

The annual outing disappeared with the parade. By 1924 the Council’s journal, the Labor Herald, reported Labor Day activities only at the Industrial Exposition. A decade later an editorial in Rochester’s labor paper mourned the Labor Day Parade, blaming its demise on the automobile, which allowed workers to take family trips, and the decision to reroute the parade so it would end at Exposition Park. By 1948 an 80-year old carpenter remembered with nostalgia an era “when union men were proud to parade down Main Street on the one day devoted to themselves — Labor Day. You could hear people saying nice things about us then; more important, we ourselves had the feeling we were helping the union, and the union movement, not only here, but all over the world by just getting out so people could see how strong we were. I think they ought to start the parades again, as soon as possible.”

But Labor Day was not the only occasion for unions to parade in Rochester. There was a parade and mass meeting in 1916 to launch the AFL’s “Labor Forward” movement, demanding the 8-hour day, and another in 1921 to protest a manufacturers’ open-shop campaign. Perhaps the largest labor parade ever held in Rochester took place in 1933 in support of the National Recovery Act, when 80,000 workers and their employers marched together down Rochester streets lined with 175,000 men, women and children. Another large parade took place in June, 1942 during War Week, on the day set aside to recognize labor’s contribution to the war effort: 20,000 AFL and CIO members marched and their float was awarded first prize in the week-long event.

In addition to parades Rochester’s workers participated in numerous marches, demonstrations, and mass meetings related to strikes and labor issues. These included protesting sweatshops (1913), supporting disarmament (1921), opposing injunctions (1927), protesting unemployment (1932), supporting fired City workers (1946) during what became a general strike, and expressing solidarity through numerous demonstrations.

In 1960, after the Rochester Labor Council sent Mike Mungovan (IATSE) to participate in New York City’s Labor Day Parade, he was quoted as hoping “that Rochester labor can start such a parade here.” In 1974 there was a Labor Day rally at the Mapledale Party House (the $1admission got ticketholders 5 hot dogs and 5 beers). A rally planned for the following Labor Day was cancelled and in 1979 Labor Day fireworks and a rally were cancelled in August for lack of planning time.

Parade marcheres with banner
Labor Day Parade, 1990, photo by Marilyn Anderson

In 1986 the Education Committee, with the encouragement of President Ron Pettengill, revived the Labor Day Parade. After visits to several affiliate board and delegate meetings by Jon Garlock (NYSUT), Charlie Carter (Carpenters) and John Foley (UAW), the Council approved holding Rochester’s first Labor Day Parade in over 60 years. Its slogan was “Walk With Those Who Make Rochester Run.”

That year Main Street was under construction and marchers followed a circular route from their assembly behind Geva Theatre, around downtown, passing the reviewing stand on Chestnut Street and ending at Manhattan Square Park. Following the parade many marchers went to a picnic at Sea Breeze Amusement Park, where they were addressed by labor leaders and politicians.

The Parade maintained this route until the completion of Main Street renovations. In 1987 the parade ended with a concert at Manhattan Square Park and a speech by Frank Barbaro, chair of the State Assembly’s Labor Committee. More marchers and vehicles were able to participate once the parade was able to follow the traditional route — assembling off East Avenue on Strathallan, Meigs, Prince, Sibley, and Alexander streets. The reviewing stand was relocated to a spot in front of the County Office Building. In 1992 a microphone was set up on a flatbed from which labor songs were sung and from which Labor Party leader Tony Mazzochi addressed the marchers.

Parade marcheres with banner
Labor Day Parade, 1994, photo by Marilyn Anderson

For several years unions continued to send marchers to picnics at Sea Breeze. These ceased by 1998, after the Rochester Labor Council established an annual July picnic at Genesee Park. Some years one or two unions held their own picnics following the parade. In 1998, when the Red Wings played the final game of their season on Labor Day, hundreds of union members simply continued the parade to Frontier Field for a Council picnic and the ball game. In 2005 the RLC sponsored a post-parade picnic at Frontier Field, attended by nearly 700 union members and their families.

The parade was held rain or shine from 1986 through 2005 and the high turnout in 1998, following a night of high winds and even tornadoes, showed the importance attached to the annual Labor Day Parade by Labor Council affiliates and their members.

The 2005 Labor Day Parade, planned to honor the Sesquicentennial of Rochester’s central labor bodies, turned into a demonstration and celebration of local labor unity following the withdrawal of several international unions at the AFL-CIO convention in Chicago. As President Jim Bertolone noted in a Labor Day editorial, “Throughout our history, Rochester’s Unions have organized in different coalitions and federations, always working together for the common cause of worker justice. The internal debate that rages today inside the house of labor is not a sign of labor’s demise, it is a testimony to our strength and determination. This is what democracy is all about. Labor Unions are the only democratic institutions in the entire nation run solely by and for working people. Our ability to disagree and remain united is well documented throughout the last two centuries. Political divisions have made our movement stronger because they are based in the need for change and growth. Today, we need to change and grow, when we do — we’ll be better and we’ll be stronger.”

The participation in the 2005 parade of so many affiliates and such large numbers of their members affirmed the Council’s commitment to labor unity.

Crowd watching parade
2005 Labor Day Parade (Photographer unknown)