Why Michiganians march on Labor Day

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — For more than a century, whether in peacetime or war and regardless of the weather, the labor movement in Michigan has traded in its working boots for walking shoes and taken to the streets for Labor Day.

Detroit's parade, in past years, has stepped off from Belle Isle and later from Grand Circus Park. More recently it has started at Michigan Avenue and headed east from Corktown to downtown.

That's the path it will travel on Monday as thousands of people will meet in Detroit to march.

The 2019 event comes as the UAW is in contract talks with the Big Three Detroit automakers, the union representing staff at The Detroit News and the Free Press is negotiating for new deals, and pro-labor candidates in the Democratic party are seeking a bump in minimum wage to $15 per hour.

While the parade has historically been an opportunity for labor to tout its accomplishments of the past year and advance its agenda for the year ahead, the 2019 iteration will see auto workers protest their union, as a federal corruption probe into the UAW has resulted in charges against nine people and prison sentences for eight figures linked to the UAW and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. Just days before Labor Day, the feds raided UAW leaders in four states.

Several hundred miles north of downtown Detroit, thousands of others, including Michigan's chief executive, will stretch their legs across the Mackinac Bridge, passing from the Lower Peninsula to the Upper Peninsula, or vice versa.

Why Michigan walks on Labor Day

Detroit's first Labor Day celebration took place on Aug. 16, 1884, and attracted a crowd of 50,000 people to Recreation Park, according to the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University.

That was a decade before Labor Day became an official national holiday, observed on the first Monday in September. Over those years the celebration would turn into a march rather than just a rally. 

"In its early years, the parade was used to voice the concerns of a fledgling labor movement and to celebrate the progress made by organized labor," according to a Reuther Library report on Labor Day in Detroit.

Kristen Chinery, a reference archivist at the Reuther library, said "parades were very popular" then and to celebrate Labor Day that way was a "natural choice."

The tradition held, even if the label is controversial. UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg, for instance, took issue when asked about the parade tradition, preferring instead to call it a march. 

The tradition has not gone on unbroken. It went away after the 1966 parade, as Detroit was still reeling from the 1967 riot. 

At the 1966 parade, President Lyndon Johnson "riled local Democrats by allowing Michigan's Republican Gov. George Romney, to ride in his motorcade," according to a Detroit News account in July 1981, when the tradition was three months from resuming after a 15-year break.

"A lack of interest" was the explanation union officials offered for the parade's long absence.

Though President Ronald Reagan had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in a past life, he was not welcome in Detroit. Tom Turner, president of the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO, said Reagan was snubbed because "I'm afraid if I invited Reagan, he and I would end up at the bottom of the Detroit River."

'Mighty Mac' now open to walkers on both peninsulas

On Monday, up as far north as you can get in Michigan before reaching the Upper Peninsula, at least 25,000 Michiganians are expected to march across "Mighty Mac" for the 62nd time.

Among them will be Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, as is tradition for Michigan's governors, even when Republicans hold the office. 

The Mackinac Bridge walk dates back to 1958, the first Labor Day for which the Mackinac Bridge was open.

From 1958 to 2017, the march started on the St. Ignace side of the bridge, on the Lower Peninsula. Buses would take walkers across to where they had parked. Cars would head north and south on the west side of the bridge, while walkers would occupy the east side.

Members of UAW Local 2500 walk the parade route in 2018.

That changed in 2018, said Kim Nowack, executive director of the Mackinac Bridge Authority.

Last year, changes eliminated the need for busing and opened the path for walkers to cross from the Upper Peninsula to the Lower as well as the more traditional path. Walkers in the Upper Peninsula start in Mackinac City.

The changes mean walkers have three choices: start on either end, walk halfway, then double back home; walk all the way across and all the way back; or walk all the way across and be transported back.

The bridge will be closed to motorists from 6:30 a.m. to noon. Nowack said that outside of the direct costs of footing part of the security bill, the walk doesn't cost the bridge any money. Motorists are aware of the walk and usually cross the bridge in greater numbers in the days ahead of it, Nowack said.

Presidential past

Labor Day also provides an opportunity for candidates to officially launch campaigns.

From the late 1940s, when the buck stopped with President Harry Truman, through the mid-1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson was promising to build a "Great Society," every Democratic presidential nominee launched their campaigns in Detroit on Labor Day.

Truman started the tradition in 1948, greeted by "the officialdom of Detroit and organized labor," as The Detroit News said at the time, including UAW boss Walter Reuther. 

"But it is the rank-and-file members of labor unions in whom the Democratic Party leaders are chiefly interested," The News reported. "They hold the votes Mr. Truman needs to win in the November election." 

Members of the United Steel Workers union walk the parade route along.

In 1941, the AFL and CIO held dueling parades in Detroit, the AFL's starting at 10 a.m. and the CIO's at 2 p.m., both stepping off from Grand Circus Park.

Seven years later, their leaders put their differences aside to greet Truman, in what The News proclaimed was "the first time in history" the unions celebrated Labor Day together. (Sort of. The AFL marched on the west side of Woodward, and CIO on the east.)

Seven years later, the rival unions would form a partnership that holds today, becoming the AFL-CIO.

That tradition, of Democratic candidates coming to Detroit on Labor Day to march and get the blessing of area unions, has disappeared in recent decades. 

In 2016, former President Bill Clinton, husband of then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, marched in Detroit.

A number of voters expressed disappointment with the former president's support for NAFTA and with the nominee's support for a possible trade agreement with Asian countries, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. 

“I wish we could change it back” to the days before NAFTA, said Scott Mooney of Brighton. He compared that trade agreement to right-to-work legislation in Michigan, which allows workers in union shops to opt out of paying for membership but still be covered by their unions.

“All these jobs it was supposed to create, where are they? It’s rigged.” Mooney said.

This year, no presidential candidates are expected to join Detroiters in marching. But the campaign of President Donald Trump, a Republican, is expected to fly a banner over the parade offering "thanks" to the American worker. These banners will fly not only in Detroit, but in major cities in other swing states, such as Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Cleveland, and South Beach, Florida.