Thousands at Labor Day Parade Focuses on Plight of Unemployed

Photo: Aliquippa’s SOAR Contingent in Parade

By Kaitlynn Riely
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Labor Day was a day off work for many, but for Shawn Wygant, it was one more day he didn’t have a job.

In May, Mr. Wygant, 37, of Forest Hills, was laid off from his job as a washing machine operator for Sodexo. Since then, he has been searching for work, without success.

He uses unemployment benefits to pay his bills and makes large pots of spaghetti to feed his wife, her sister, her brother and a niece and nephew.

Frustration sets in when he sees news reports that say the job situation may not improve for years.

"I can’t wait that long," he said. "We need people to start standing up for us."

On Monday morning, he stood in the rain on Freedom Corner in the Hill District as he prepared to march in the Pittsburgh Labor Day Parade. He was one of about 70,000 who participated in the Downtown procession.

On the annual observance of the contributions of workers, Mr. Wygant’s story was similar to those of millions across the country who have found themselves unemployed or underemployed in the economic downturn.

Nationally, the unemployment rate is 9.1 percent, and in Pennsylvania, it is 7.4 percent.

Jack Shea, president of the Allegheny County Labor Council, and Frank Snyder, the secretary-treasurer of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, called attention to the plight of the jobless at a news conference before the parade Monday.

For the unemployed and the underemployed, the dreary holiday weather was another chapter in a bleak period of their life.

"For the past two years, it’s not been that happy of a Labor Day as they’ve not been able to find work," Mr. Snyder said.

At this year’s Labor Day Parade, one of the largest in the country, Mr. Snyder said he and other leaders of Pittsburgh’s labor community wanted to focus on putting people back to work.

That focus includes both union and non-union workers, he said.

"Unemployment does not discriminate," he said. "Union members as well as non-union members, Democrats, Republicans, no affiliation, find themselves unemployed on this Labor Day."

Dave Ninehouser, the Pittsburgh coordinator for PA Wants to Work, said his group was using Labor Day to ramp up its efforts to help the jobless gain access to resources and to spur the creation of jobs.

"This parade is a perfect example of what we need to do," he said. "Come together, stick together, stand together and fight back."

The parade began at 10 a.m. and lasted almost three hours. Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Bishop David Zubik joined union members ranging from postal employees to Teamsters as they marched from the Civic Arena to the Boulevard of the Allies.

A steady rain fell throughout the morning, but there was a fair turnout, particularly among parade participants.

It was, for many parade participants, a bittersweet Labor Day.

About 5,000 members of the Pennsylvania State Education Association have been laid off from their jobs due to education cuts in the state budget, said Michael J. Crossey, president of the association. As the school year starts, they are out of work instead of in the classrooms, he said.

"We need to start doing the positive things that will move the economy forward," Mr. Crossey said. "This cuts budget doesn’t work."

More than 50 people came out in support of the National Association of Letter Carriers, said Mike Plaskon, the executive vice president for Branch 84.

Part of their aim in marching in the parade, Mr. Plaskon said, was to urge Congress to find legislative solutions for the U.S. Postal Service’s funding crisis.

"Our job is, we are going to get the facts out there, let the public know that they don’t need to close post offices," he said. "They don’t need to eliminate Saturday delivery. They just need to fix the funding."

Therese Kisic of Morningside has never been in a union but has family members who have, and she watches the parade every year.

This year, she said, she wished the labor movement would take its jobs message to Congress.

"I want to move this parade to D.C.," she said.

Although the parade had a definite message — of supporting organized labor, providing access to health care and promoting job creation — it was still a parade, with bands and banners and a few people throwing candy and other prizes to the umbrella-wielding bystanders.

Sandy and Andrew Pszenny of Franklin Park sat in lawn chairs on the sidewalk outside the DoubleTree Hotel, Downtown, and watched for their daughter Amanda, a piccolo player in the North Allegheny marching band.

They sought cover under their umbrellas as rain fell. It was their daughter’s first time marching in a downpour, they said.

"But she’s a tough kid. She likes the weather," Mr. Pszenny said.

Kaitlynn Riely: o