Hundreds of people lined Tryon Street Monday to catch Charlotte’s annual Labor Day Parade, a celebration featuring marching bands, politicians, and lots of workers – members of some 16 local unions representing occupations that ranged from theatrical stage employees to locomotive engineers.
Workers, of course, are the reason for Labor Day, but plenty of Americans are fuzzy about the holiday’s origins. Parade-goer Larry Williams said he encountered the parade by accident, while taking a “post-breakfast, pre-lunch walk” from his home in South End. And then he wondered: “What’s the story with Labor Day?”
The story is a violent one. President Grover Cleveland and Congress created the federal holiday in 1894 following a national Pullman rail car workers strike that left 30 workers dead. Charlotte’s current Labor Day Parade dates to 1999, when a group of union members began organizing the annual event.
Ben Lee, a senior locomotive engineer for Norfolk Southern, has chaired the parade since 2004. He says it’s important “to continually remind people that the 40-hour work week was not a gift out of the skies. Neither was paid vacation or paid medical care.
“The labor unions won this for their workers years ago at a cost of blacklisting, death, injury,” he said. “If you look back in the history of labor, it was bloody.”
Though Monday’s parade celebrated workers, not every participant had the day off. Lee said that U.S. Postal Service letter carrier Ted Benjamin, who drove a mail truck in the parade, set off for his work shift as soon as he got to the end of the route.