WILKES-BARRE — On a day when many have off from work and school, the Rev. Shawn Walker was among those who came to Kirby Park Monday to celebrate the nation’s workforce.
The day-long celebration featured fun and activities for the entire family, along with live entertainment, but it also had a serious side.
Walker, pastor at the First Baptist Church of Wilkes-Barre and a member of the Wilkes-Barre Area School District Board of Education, was among those to speak at Monday’s second annual Labor Day Celebration and Festival.
Walker remembered the dreary lights, the small of burnt plastic and the men and women working hard at an industrial supply company shortly after he visited the plant when he worked as a business executive.
“I have just seen what makes America work,” Walker recalled telling his wife afterward.
Reinforcing that message was the theme of the day.
“We felt there was a need, and a want and a desire to celebrate the great history that we have with our labor force in Northeastern Pennsylvania,” said Roxanne Pauline, volunteer and coordinator with the NEPA Labor Day Committee, which revived what had been a long-lost tradition.
Committee members wanted to create an event that commemorated Labor Day the same way people celebrated it here in the late 1800s.
“The committee was aware that first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1892, in New York City, in accordance with the plans of the Central Labor Union,” the committee said in a news release. “The idea spread with the growth of labor organizations, and in 1885, Labor Day was celebrated in many industrial centers of the country.”
The event started out small, with the idea being it could just be a small parade or a walk to pay tribute to Labor Day. In its second year, Pauline said the number of vendors at the event has doubled.
She did not have an exact number of attendees on Monday, as the crowds were still finding their way to the event.
All proceeds of the event will benefit veterans at the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center. The committee also is looking at sending volunteers to spend time with veterans.
Honoring a legacy
A number of speakers and local government representatives attended the event and spoke to the crowd during opening ceremonies.
“If you enjoy a 40-hour workweek, if you enjoy a fair wage, if you enjoy a reasonable amount of safety in your workplace, if you can raise your family in dignity, thank the unions,” said State Sen. John Blake, D-Archibald.
State Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre, said that Northeastern Pennsylvania is home to some of the most hard-working people in the country. He attributed that status to years of hard work and sacrifice that go all the way back to the anthracite industry.
At one point in history, that meant bloodshed.
Pashinski referred to the Lattimer Mine Disaster of Sept. 10, 1897.
Miners that went on strike were marching, and were stopped by Luzerne County Sheriff James Martin. The confrontation led to confusion and shots fired.
Nineteen miners were killed, and more than 50 were wounded.
While modern labor disputes may not be violent as in decades past, labor strife is far from dead.
Elaine Weale, president of a local nurses union at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital, understands that. The union went on a five-day strike in July. And while Weale said the issues are still not resolved, she called the action “very successful.”
She said it was important for workers to step up and speak out when employers try to take advantage of them, and she thought the festival was a great way to drive that home.
“So many of our holidays have become commercialized or given other nicknames and things like that,” Weale said.
“It’s important that workers now start to realize that they do have a voice and we can turn this around and we can make the country a very strong labor country.”