Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo (R) and David Kramer. Labor Day Parade, 2019. I am wearing my Cuban national baseball cap given by a friend who recently visited the island. From a historical perspective, Fidel Castro must be considered an important labor figure. [Photo: William Napier, Chairman, Monroe County Republican Committee]
I went to the 2019 Labor Day Parade with one question. Name three labor heroes, past or present, based on your own definition of what makes a labor hero.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many people found the question difficult, although they could easily name prominent politicians and businessmen or prominent sports/entertainment figures. One man could only think of Jimmy Hoffa. When reflecting on why the question was difficult — who are your labor heroes — people said the role of labor is taken for granted or not appreciated or celebrated. Others stated that public schools — from grammar school upward — do not properly educate students on the accomplishments of the labor movement. Some noted that the labor movement is more collectivist than individualistic; hence the movement valorizes the everyday worker rather than glorifying heroes.
At the same time, the activists and office holders and office seeker at the parade did have heroes in mind, each revealing an aspect of their worldviews.
When asked the question, Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo gave just one answer three times: Flo Trippi, Flo Trippi, Flo Trippi. For nearly 20 years, Florence Tripi (1939 – 2019) was the western region president of the Civil Service Employees Association. While Dinolfo and Trippi were not always on the same side of the table, Dinolfo clearly admires Trippi who she called an icon.
Monroe County Republican Committee Chairman William Napier’s labor heroes include Florence Trippi, Bob Brown, business manager of Rochester Laborers Local 435 and Sam Church Jr. (1936 – 2009), a coal miner and president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) from 1979 to 1982.
One of Kyle Steinbach supporters, Kristin Coons (top right), took a cultural approach, mentioning musicians Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and cultural icon Rosie the Riviter.
Judge Rosenbaum immediately mentioned Samuel Gompers. For knowing his American labor history, Rosenbaum got my thumbs up. Gompers (1850 – 1924) founded the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Rosenbaum also listed Marvin Miller (1917 – 2012), Executive Director of the Major League Players Association (MLBPA) from 1966 to 1982. Under Miller’s direction, the players’ union was transformed into one of the strongest unions in the United States. Like Steinbach supporter Kristin Coons, Rosenbaum also gave a shout out to Rosie.
As for why labor heroes are relatively hard to name, Rosenbaum says –“unjustifiably so” — labor is given short shrift in popular historical narratives. (I’d add it is unjustifiable that Miller is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame as are many other executives and commissioners.)
Sandra Doorley, seeking re-election as the Monroe County District Attorney, also gave a shout out to Rosie the Riviter. On Sandra’s list were her father Jay Doorley, a pipe fitter and proud union member, as well as Cesar Chavez, who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, later renamed the United Farm Workers (UFW).
Harry Bronson supporter Paul Flansburg cited MLK, Jane Addams (1860 –1935), settlement activist, reformer, social worker, sociologist, public administrator and author, and — after I explained my hat — Paul went for Fidel Castro. Harry went both national and local, naming MLK as well as James Bertolone, retired President of the Rochester and vicinity, AFL-CIO and Bruce Popper, vice president of local SEIU 1199.
Alex White and supporters of his Green Party campaign for City Council named many labor heroes, even running to me with more names after I had moved on to another candidate, rattling off Gompers, Eugene V. Debs (1885 – 1926), socialist, political activist, trade unionist and one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and five times the candidate of the Socialist Party of America for President, Lucy Parsons (1853 – 1942), labor organizer, radical socialist and anarcho-communist and co-founder of the Industrial Workers of the World and Mother Jones (1837 – 1930), an Irish-born American schoolteacher and dressmaker who became a prominent organized labor representative, community organizer, and activist. Mother Jones helped coordinate major strikes and co-founded the Industrial Workers of the World (wikipedia). One hero’s name is unfortunately unintelligible in my hurried notes.
Interestingly, Alex did not want to categorize Fidel Castro as a labor hero as Alex thinks corruption defined the Castro regime.
Marvin Stepherson, running for the 3rd District seat in the Monroe County Legislature, listed Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin. Marvin bulked up his list by adding W. E. B. Du Bois and Susan B. Anthony.
Marvin says people can’t readily name labor heroes because we don’t celebrate them enough.
Brighton Town Supervisor Bill Moehle listed Samuel Gompers and Walter Reuther (1907 – 1970), organized labor leader and civil rights activist who built the United Auto Workers (UAW) into one of the most progressive labor unions in American history. Growing up in Detroit, Bill saw first hand and admired what Reuthers accomplished for auto workers.
When an undergraduate at Williams College, Dolores Huerte’s speaking appearance captivated Bill. Along with Cesar Chavez, Huerte (b. 1930) co-founded the National Farmworkers Association, later becoming the United Farm Workers (UFW). Huerta helped organize the Delano grape strike in 1965 in California and was the lead negotiator in the workers’ contract created after the strike (wikipedia).
Robin Wilt, running for re-election for the Brighton Town Board, was quick to name heroes. Robin found the question easy as Robin has organized on labor issues from the beginning of her activist career. Her local heroes are Bruce Popper, Bess Watts (CSEA) and Marriage Equality activist Anne Tischer.
Candidate for Monroe County Executive, Adam Bello said he never been asked that question before. Pause for a second, he listed Flo Trippi, his mother Gail Bello (NYSTU) and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
As I pondered the question, I concurred with Bello. On the national scene, FDR — though not aligned with any particular union — championed enduring labor rights. On the international scene, I’ll have to go with Karl Marx, hero or villain as you see fit.
UPDATE: In On the electoral road with Melissa Barrett, we followed Melissa’s campaign for County Court Judge. This year, Melissa was appointed to the Rochester City Court and runs unopposed in the November election. Due to a family conflict, Melissa missed the Labor Day parade. Nonetheless, I ran her into at the Public Market on Saturday, September 7th where she shopped and met voters. Melissa’s labor heroes are MLK Jr., Marcus Garvey and Flo Trippi. For many years, Melissa was in the union led by Flo.