Sept. 08–PETERSBURG — PETERSBURG — Everyone in this tiny Pike County town saw Monday that it’s still possible to get a good-sized crowd out for a traditional Labor Day parade.
What was more difficult to see was a certain melancholy among some working men and women — and former working men and women — about the state of organized labor today.
Among those lining the parade route along Main Street, Angie Robling spoke at first about being there to show solidarity with other unionists. She mentioned the perpetual struggle for better benefits. But Robling’s face darkened when asked whether these are good days for labor.
A new breed of worker with no respect for organized labor’s history and achievements is eroding the movement’s potency by voluntarily working for fewer benefits, said Robling, a postal worker and a member of the rural letter carriers union.
“Nobody sticks together. Everybody wants to hire new people that work for maybe more money on the hour, but they don’t have no future benefits,” she said. “They don’t back their co-workers like people used to.”
With daughter Crystal Dejarnett looking on and nodding, Robling gathered steam.
“They work for today and not for the future. When they retire, they’re not going to have any insurance, not going to have any pension — they’re not going to have nothing,” she said.
Sponsored by the Labor Day Association, which includes Evansville unions, Monday’s parade began at 9 a.m. at Petersburg Elementary School, following along Goodlet and Eighth streets to Main Street and then south to Pike Street, snaking its way ultimately to Hornaday Park. It was part of a larger four-day 129th Labor Day Celebration billed by its organizers as the third-oldest Labor Day event in the nation.
Beverly Cannon, of Winslow, showed up with her daughter and granddaughter to honor working men and women. Cannon’s father, the late Edward Fork, retired from the coal mines in Boonville after about 50 years. He was a proud United Mine Workers member.
Cannon is 75. She has seen a thing or two. She, too, said organized labor has seen better days. But when asked to explain, she took a second to find her voice.
“It’s the economy mostly,” she said, carefully measuring her words. “And … I don’t know.”
Then Cannon said what she really thinks.
“This generation is just so different than what I grew up in,” she said. “It’s completely different now.”
Today’s worker doesn’t have as much respect for unionism as workers did in her generation, Cannon said.
The Labor Day Association’s four-day celebration, which began at Pike County Fairgrounds Friday night, attracted some 12,000 people overall, according to a law enforcement estimate. It had all the trappings of classic small town Americana, including cutest baby contests, pageants, karaoke, talent shows, carnival rides, a poker run and a car show.
Sweeping up confetti after the last American-flag-bearing car had passed and the crowds lining both sides of Main Street had disappeared, Gladys Dixey contemplated what it all meant.
The 39-year-old Dixey, a maintenance worker for an apartment building along the parade route, has never been a member of a labor union. But she is a working woman, born and raised in Petersburg.
“It’s heartbreaking. I mean, you work all your life …” Dixey said, her words trailing off.
“You work so hard, and you really don’t get nothing out of it,” she said. “You just work — work your fingers to the bone.
“We need a lot more around here and in the nation — a lot more money, a lot more respect.”
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