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Labor Day's Significance Remains Strong for Some Workers, Less So for Others

Amid parades and end-of-summer picnics, how much does the holiday resonate today in Western Pennsylvania?

Growing up in the North Hills in the 1970s, Margaret Ward Robbibaro loved Labor Day.

Although she admits she didn’t think much about the traditional meaning of the holiday, she knew what it meant to her.

“Labor Day cushioned the dread of going back to school,” said Robbibaro, 46, of Ohio Township. “You have those few days of having to be back in school, and then Labor Day would come. It was a summer vacation encore.”

The holiday began in 1892 with a parade of carpenters in New York City. President Grover Cleveland probably was not thinking about giving kids one last summer fling when he made it official two years later, declaring the first Monday of September a holiday for working men.

In the decades since, unions unofficially claimed the holiday as their own, often using the federal day off as a platform for labor rallies and marches.

In Western Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh’s annual Labor Day Parade is considered to be among the nation’s largest demonstrations of union solidarity. This year, the region's union leaders aim to focus on unemployed workers by turning today's parade Downtown into a "March for Jobs."

But as Americans celebrate Labor Day 2011 with parades and picnics, they are aware of the weak economic and employment climate in which legislatures in some states are gutting the collective bargaining power of public labor unions.

“A lot of people have lost the meaning of the holiday,” said Sandy Kmetyk, who is feeling those changes perhaps more than most this weekend.

Kmetyk is back home for a break from New York, where she has been representing the Communications Workers of America Local 13500 from  during contract talks with Verizon. After a brief strike last month, Verizon’s 45,000 union employees agreed to return to work while talks continue.

Kmetyk, who has handled contract negotiations for 40 years, said these talks are the most difficult she can recall.

“We have to teach our children the history of all this,” she said. “We were the ones who had all the struggles that made the day possible.

"We fought for pensions, and health insurance and safety and vacation days.”

The ongoing talks bring a special significance to the holiday weekend for thousands of communications workers and countless others. For others, Labor Day has lost its relevance as a labor holiday.

“I don’t pay much attention to it,” said David Chalmers, a Sewickley resident long retired from a career begun as a chemical engineer.

Chalmers, 82, remembers a time when labor unions were a predominant force in the Western Pennsylvania economy.

“They don’t seem to have the power they used to have,” he said.

Chalmers belonged to a union only briefly during a summer job, but his son long has been a union member.

Jack Chalmers is an ironworker, receiving job assignments and health benefits through an Ironworkers local. He likens his union’s representation to that of a sports agent.

“You pay them for doing the negotiating,” said Jack Chalmers, 57, of Ben Avon.

He says $4.50 of his hourly wage covers the cost of his health insurance, and the union cannot protect him from being fired. Like his father, he is skeptical about what the holiday celebrates now.

“My dad was never in a union, and he worked every day,” said Chalmers. “Where is his parade?”

As of Friday, the latest figures from the U.S. Labor Department show zero growth in hiring during August and negligible change in employment in major industries.

The nation’s long-flailing job market has weakened organized labor, says John Delaney, dean of the Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Fewer and fewer people understand what organized labor is about or identify with it, “said Delaney. “Labor Day parades don’t mean nearly as much as they did 20 or 50 years ago.”

In 2010, the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the nation’s union membership rate was 11.9 percent, or 14.7 million people, compared to 20.1 percent, or 17.7 million people, in 1983—the first year for which comparable statistics are available.

Delaney believes that in the past, unions were successful for specific causes, often related to safety and well being of the workers. Today, unions must work harder to help the public understand that everyone benefits when union workers are fairly compensated, he said.

He said today’s young organizers might look to new media as a way to generate what he calls a new solidarity, perhaps with “flash mobs” that energize union causes.

While Margaret Robbibaro is enjoying summer’s encore with her family this weekend, she will be thinking about how the meaning of Labor Day has changed for her.

Robbibaro now works as a staffing and recruitment specialist at Draeger USA in Robinson, an international company that makes medical and safety technology.

“It’s a celebration of work,” she said.” As a working mother, it resonates because women have come so far. It’s part of the landscape of families now, that both parents work toward the American dream.”

Jack Chalmers, the ironworker, is all for the American dream. Still, he points out an irony about a holiday meant to celebrate work.

“I don’t pay much attention,” he said. “For me, Labor Day is another day without pay.”

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