Why We Still Celebrate Labor Day, Despite Setbacks

Editor’s Note: This post was written by a union organizer from Illinois. It responds to Robert Reich’s recent argument that, in the wake of anti-union activity, we need protest marches rather than celebratory parades. 

Professor Reich,

I am a big fan of your work, but I think you miss the mark on your article, “This Day We Need Protest Marches Rather than Parades.”  I want to explain why publicly because I think the question of celebration in a time of trouble is an important one to the national labor movement.

I’m a member of the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (Illinois Federation of Teachers Local 6300), which represents about 2,700 graduate employees. In 2009, I was the communications officer for the GEO when we won a fair contract from the U of I with one of the five largest strikes in the United States that year (and one of only five involving at least 1,000 workers).  I helped organize (and publicize) rallies, marches, and protests that brought together teaching assistants, service workers, student activists, building trades, and many other members of our local struggles for justice.

So I’ve done a fair amount of protest marching, in Illinois, and Wisconsin, and Indiana.  The federal government isn’t coming to rescue us.  Unions have seen some major reversals that only highlight decades of erosion of our power.   But amidst the protests, we have to remember that there is a lot to celebrate right now.

Despite having to shoulder the weight of myriad defeats, I see workers around me, as they always have, continuing in the struggle–organizing and marching and striking for the right to be valued and treated fairly.  Here at the University of Illinois, we have two unions who recently won raises in their contracts, while other unions are set at 0 percent.   They aren’t big raises, and they’re not all that we hoped for, but we have them, and we have them only because we marched and protested and struck and forced the hands on the other side of the table.

That’s enough for me to celebrate.  Even when we lose, we lose after massive effort and solidarity.  The fact that such effort and solidarity was possible gives us hope that it will be possible again.  Wisconsin (and Indiana, which saw the largest protest in state history early this spring) is an example of where such hope can come from.  That’s something to celebrate.

The Faculty Association at Central Michigan University walked out on Monday, Aug. 22, against long odds.  They may win or lose their court battle to lift an injunction against their right to withhold their labor, but whatever the outcome, I’ll be celebrating their courage and example at the parade.

The UAW just came to town, helping to organize a factory in Urbana.  They have a long road ahead with their card and recognition drive, but we’re glad they’re here—and that’s something to celebrate, and they’ll be marching in the Labor Day parade with us.  The day after, they’ll be back at that factory, talking to workers about forming a union.

One thing I learned as my union’s communications officer is that a rally or protest march isn’t just to scare the bosses, or to show politicians that people are willing to put energy into an issue in large numbers (although protests are a vital tool for accomplishing these and other goals).  Protests also serve to build solidarity among workers and progressive allies.  People should return from marches feeling energized because if they are asked to do something the next week that may entail more risk–strike, for example–they’ve just had a physical demonstration of the fact that a whole bunch of other folks will be there with them.

This means that while protests don’t need to be fun, they do need to be energizing.  It also means that events that are celebratory, like parties and Labor Day parades, are a vital tool in organizing for social justice.

For the members of my union, and the other workers that we will march with, Labor Day isn’t about celebrating how good we have it.  It is about showing each other our solidarity, and celebrating the joy that we can take from knowing that we have each other’s backs.  It is about giving those in the community who support us another chance – and we can’t give them too many – to show us that support, and to see that we’ll work for their rights in turn.

Professor Reich, we are holding protests.  We are marching all over the Midwest and the United States.  We are striking.  We are walking each other’s lines.  We are putting in long hours getting cards signed, and writing press releases, and lobbying the hell out of every public official who might have an effect on our rights.

I see–and am frustrated by–the presence in the labor movement of people who seem to be complacent, or perhaps too quick to advocate continued negotiations with those on the other side of the room, who will never treat workers fairly without being forced to.  So for some, Labor Day parades might be about simple celebration of things that aren’t there.

But for me and the other members of my union who will be marching through Urbana, IL this Labor Day alongside our fellow activists from other locals, we’ll be marching to celebrate the work that we do, and the struggle that we engage in every day.

Personally, I’ll be marching to celebrate those who do far more than me–who dedicate their entire lives, putting in long, long hours–doing labor for labor, including the labor that must go into planning protest marches.

Without taking some time off to have celebration, there would be fewer people, at fewer protests.  And the ones that did happen would feature a lot of tired and jaded looking folks.

I’m sure you know the famous (and apocryphal) story about Emma Goldman, revolution, and dancing.  I think it applies here.  Because one thing we do in Urbana-Champaign, IL on Labor Day is make joyous noise and dance as we parade through the streets: and I want no part of a labor movement that doesn’t dance.

Thank you for your work.  I don’t agree with your argument here, but your writing is a regular inspiration to me as someone trying to make it as both an academic and an activist.

In solidarity,


Peter Odell Campbell
Teaching Assistant and Ph.D. Student
Graduate Employees Organization, Illinois Federation of Teachers Local 6300


ADDENDUM: In response, Robert Reich emailed a brief response to Peter Campbell. It is: 

“I completely agree about the need to celebrate victories and keep up morale. Thanks for writing.

Robert B. Reich
Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy
Goldman School of Public Policy
University of California, Berkeley”

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