Labor Day

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East St. Louis Labor Day Celebrations
in the 1930s and '40s

by Charles Oliver of Belleville
(East Side, 1946)

 

Labor Day in East St. Louis consisted of parades, picnics and celebrations. That first Monday in September was quite a day in the 1930s. Especially for a kid, like me, growing up in that time and place.

At that time, East St. Louis was an industrial center where most families lived on the wages paid by the many plants and factories in and around the city. My family was no exception.

A lot was happening in that community in the late '30s. A lot of which I didn't understand. I was, after all, a boy not yet in his teens. But some things I did comprehend. Knowledge was gained by listening to the discussions at the family dinner table, or when friends and other family members came calling, I heard about "jobs," and "unions," and "organizing drives." And I learned of labor organizations with names such as the AFL and CIO.

The American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organization were separate entities in those days.

Although their overall objectives were similar, for the most part they were bitter rivals. The AFL represented skilled workers and craftsmen, while the CIO sought to organize unskilled workers. The CIO ranks had a significantly larger number of Negro members. The CIO also had a much stronger influence within its ranks by socialists and communists. The AFL was less receptive to Socialist and Communist ideals than the CIO. Because AFL workers were generally higher skilled and better paid than their CIO counterparts, there was a certain element of elitism that entered into the equation.

In 1935, Congress had enacted the National Labor Relations Act, more commonly known as the Wagner Act. The law guaranteed workers the right to bargain collectively and it placed restrictions on employer opposition to unions. The enactment of the Wagner Act triggered an intensive nationwide drive on the part of both the AFL and CIO to "organize the unorganized."

East St. Louis and its surrounding industrial suburbs dotted with factories, and bellowing smokestacks spelled "members" to the growing labor movement. That made this area a prime target for the organizing effort. My dad (David Oliver), a railroader, joined the AFL. So did an aunt (Anna Mann), and several cousins (Bertha Fresen and Gladys Mann), who became members of the Laundry Workers Union. My mother, Amelia Fresen Oliver, also belonged to the laundry union. Two other family members, boilermakers by trade (Ed Reynolds and Gabe Gulart), also became AFL members. Gulart (Portuguese) was part of Ollie Moore's inner-circle. He later became an international representative for the Boilermaker's Union.

Other family members, including Elizabeth Weidemer, worked at Armour and Swift plants in National City and joined the Packing House Workers and were thus affiliated with the CIO.

Each year, organized labor's focal point was Labor Day, with not one but two parades! There were thousands of marchers from the labor unions. And the streets were lined with more than 50,000 persons who watched the unionists march.

We watched the CIO parade first. It stepped off from Ninth Street and Exchange Avenue about 10 a.m. From there the line of march went to St. Clair Avenue and then east to Fifteenth Street. At Fifteenth Street the parade would turn north and proceed to Lincoln Avenue and end at Lansdowne Park. There, the CIO held its annual picnic in the midst of tree-lined lagoons.

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The CIO was the smaller of the two. The bulk of its 6,000 marchers came from the packing house workers, steelworkers, and mine, mill and smelter workers.

Our whole family, with the exception of those parading, watched this first parade at Fifteenth and Baugh Avenue. As soon as the final unit passed by, we headed for Twentyfifth and St. Clair. With a little effort. we negotiated the ten blocks and arrived before the AFL parade reached that point.

The AFL had a much longer parade route that had its beginning in downtown East St. Louis. near Third Street and Missouri Avenue near City Hall Park. They then proceeded out Missouri Avenue and veered over to State Street at about Tenth Street. They then went cast on State Street. then turned north on 25th Street, by the Esquire Theater. From there they marched to Argonne Drive. and entered Jones Park at that point. This parade was the big one. With some 20,000 marchers. and nearly 70 labor unions, it took well over an hour for this parade to pass at any one point. Among others, the laborers union. carpenters, electrical workers. operating engineers, ironworkers, bricklayers, boilermakers, laundry workers, longshoremen. glass workers, chemical workers. aluminum ore and Lubrite Refinery workers all participating.

Each year the City of East St. Louis provided a motorcycle police escort to head the parade, followed by color guards of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. City officials, central trades and labor union officials, floats. bands. buses, and drum and bugle corps all participated in the exciting event.

And the kids? We delighted in the free throw-aways! We scrambled after the candy, chewing gum, balloons, pencils and rulers passed out or tossed into the crowd along the route.

After the parade reached its end point, thousands of union members, and their families, picnicked there, on into the evening hours. Our family did likewise.

There were speakers. band concerts, canoe rides and sometimes boxing and wrestling matches. The wrestlers were the local semi-pros from St. Paul's Social Center. And all day long the kids enjoyed hot dogs, soda , and ice cream. And all day long it was there in the back of my mind. Try as I could to put it out, Labor Day, for me, marked the official end to summer. In those times. the day after always meant the first day of school. It hardly seemed like three months ago, school had dismissed with kids chanting: "School's out, school's out! Teacher let the mules out!"

East St. Louis Labor Day parades are history now. So are most of the industries, the jobs, and many of the labor unions of that day. And most of the participants have passed away. But I will always remember the way it was!

 

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