Tuesday, April 16, 2024

A holiday to celebrate the working life

My dog and I have a Labor Day tradition of watching the annual parade down Charlotte’s Tryon Street. I love parades, Maggie loves walks anywhere, anytime.

It’s a fun affair with a few marching bands, a dozen or so politicians, folks representing various labor unions and the Democratic and Green parties,  and lots of souped-up cars.

Every year the parade prompts an annual reflection on the meaning of work, and the longer one works — and I’m past the 30-year mark – the more credibility one has to comment about labor.

Sadly, it may be our most politicized holiday, particularly in the Carolinas where distrust of unions is so engrained. In a just world, everyone should enjoy an annual opportunity to gather in praise of workers. But this year, I didn’t notice a single Republican politician marching. Gov. Pat McCrory and U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, who have attended  previous parades, weren’t there.

Several local Democrats showed up, including Mayor Jennifer Roberts, who walked at such a fast pace that it appeared she was late for another appointment.

No offense to the fine people who participate, but the parade always makes clear that the folks who warn of the evils of unions have won the argument. Dozens of people march, including representatives of the Freightliner plants in Gaston and Rowan Counties, AT&T, the electricians and the mail carriers. But the unions with perhaps the most clout in Mecklenburg County, namely the city’s police and fire professionals, and the pilots and baggage handlers who keep Charlotte-Douglas International Airport open, didn’t march. I guess they don’t want anyone to know that they are union members.

Not really sure why, but the majority of the crowd at Charlotte’s parade is African-American. The only high school marching bands, both virtually 100% African-American, were from West Charlotte and Vance high schools.

I didn’t spot any prominent business leaders marching, or attending. Wouldn’t it be nice for a top Charlotte CEO or powerbroker to show up to celebrate the labor force that makes today’s eye-popping executive contracts possible?

I’ve never been a union member, so I’m not a reliable source. I see both sides of the divide: Union rigidity restricts innovation and adds costs that may make companies uncompetitive.

Conversely, in my 30-plus years on the job, I’ve learned that unions run by ethical people are the most effective advocates for workers on the key issues of wages, healthcare and retirement savings. That isn’t a radical view: Ed Whitacre reached a similar conclusion after his experiences as the CEO of AT&T and General Motors, according to his 2013 memoir, “American Turnaround.”

No offense to my gay and lesbian friends, but it’s telling that Charlotte’s Labor Day parade draws a tiny fraction of the 60,000-plus folks at the annual Pride parade two weeks earlier. The passion for civil rights may exceed our commitment to a better workplace.

But the longer I work, the more respect I have for folks grinding away to keep the lights on and the kids fed. Thank goodness for Labor Day.

David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at

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