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The Journal Gazette

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Guests enjoy food and bingo during the Sept. 4 Labor Day Picnic at Headwaters Park.

  • Schmidt

  • Murray

Monday, September 11, 2017 1:00 am

A Labor Day feast

Annual picnic celebrates, reflects unions' resurgence

Randy Schmidt

Randy Schmidt is vice chairman of Allen County's United Auto Workers Community Action Program.

In 1982, Richard Merren of UAW Local 57 had an idea. We would turn what was once a typical Labor Day parade into a gift to the people of Fort Wayne and northeast Indiana. It would be a Labor Day Family Picnic, open to the entire community, paid for entirely by the generosity of area union members. Other leaders like former Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council President Don Strack and Dave Altman, representative of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, picked up the banner and the idea quickly spread throughout the labor community.

There have been 36 Labor Day Family Picnics so far. On Sept. 4, more than 6,000 working people converged at Headwaters Park to accept our annual invitation, and the event has grown into one of the largest of its kind in the Midwest. Dozens of local unions supplied not only the food and beverages, but their members contributed thousands of hours in planning, preparation, setup and operation.

Our 2017 picnic committee co-chairs, Darryl Esterline, President of the Northeast Indiana Building Trades Council, and Mike Lauer, retired president of Carpenters Local 232, led a new group of union volunteers and friends of labor to make this annual gift to the community one of our best.

Indiana labor and political leaders such as AFL-CIO Hoosier Heartland Federation President Shawn Christ, Indiana UAW Community Action Program Representative Danny Ernstes, and Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody all drove up from Indianapolis to lend a hand and show their support for our community.

Many local leaders also stopped by on Labor Day to thank organized labor for making Fort Wayne a community where prosperity is shared among all working people – whether they wear collars of white, blue or pink. Folks like Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry, City Councilman Geoff Paddock, County Councilwoman Sharon Tucker and congressional candidate Courtney Tritch all pitched in to help with food preparation and service.

And more than 30 area community organizations set up information tables at the picnic. Groups ranging from the Associated Churches to the United Way to the NAACP to the Questa Education Foundation were in attendance to support our common goals of diversity, inclusiveness, equality and economic fairness.

But while worker solidarity is strong in Fort Wayne, the number of people covered by union contracts both here and nationally has dropped since 1982. Decades of bad trade laws have been the biggest culprit, shipping good-paying, union, industrial jobs to poor, developing nations where near-slave-labor wages and nonexistent pollution regulations are the big draw.

This shift to a smaller union movement has left an opening for our political opponents to tear down the middle class solidarity that our labor activist parents and grandparents built for future generations.

But recent polls indicate Americans of all ages are tired of an economy built on non-union, minimum-wage service jobs. They are once again asking labor unions to be the change agents that help workers achieve the American dream in the 21st century.

Merren, the Honduran immigrant and labor leader, also runs the very popular annual picnic bingo game. His deep baritone voice has been a part of the soundtrack of the event for all these years.

But age is catching up with him, and this year he turned the baton over to another rising star in the labor community, Roxanna Murray.

And it was a new generation's female voice booming throughout Headwaters Park on Monday.

Organized labor's mission is to provide both the voice and the hope for America's working people.

We are alive and well in Fort Wayne, Indiana. And our message of economic fairness is gaining strength again.