Labor Day Reflection
By David P. Dolgen
Sometime about thirty five or forty years ago, I had my last Labor Day Parade experience with my father. Participating in the New York City Labor Day Parade with him was one of those wonderful emotional mixes of a sonís obligation to his father, to do what his father expected of him, and an honest sense of enthusiasm and pride.
The obligation was easy to understand. My father was a very important labor leader in New York. Every Labor Day he lead one to two thousand of the members of his Local Union #10 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union up Seventh Avenue, along with thousands of other union members from a variety of New York City AFL-CIO affiliated unions to celebrate their day, a day that they owned, Labor Day. He expected his sons, and particularly me, his youngest, to accompany him with pride at the head of his contingent. It was a matter of honor and respect and I understood it without anyone having to explain it to me.
Every year he would have his men assemble wearing black slacks, and crisp white sleeveless shirts. They were clothing cutters, the elite of his industry, the most highly educated, skilled, and well paid members of the entire union. At its industry peak in New York City, about seven and a half thousand clothing cutters would supply goods for the entire organized ladiesí garment trade in all of New York. These were proud and lucky men who made a good wage, in what was then a strong domestic unionized industry. They knew that their fortune was built on the backs of men like my father who had organized their trade when it consisted of sweat shops exploiting the waves of immigrants arriving incessantly at places like New Yorkís Ellis Island.
So these loyal activists would line up every Labor Day, assembled by clubs that consisted within the local itself. These clubs were organized like political party cells. They were based upon the manufacturing subset of the local. For instance, there were clubs for coat cutters, dress cutters, underwear and negligee cutters, sportswear cutters, and so on. This was part of the brilliance of my fatherís political machine. He had layers of loyal union men organized by sub-trade and therefore had a ton of deep leadership to call upon for events like the Parade. This organizational structure came in handy for other critical causes such as political campaigns, union organizing campaigns, support of other unions and their causes, civil rights and other social advocacy rallies and protests (such as the 1963 March on Washington at which my father lead thousands of his men down to D.C. to support A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King).
So these were the elite combat forces, so to speak, of my fatherís local. They were the best organized, most widely recognized group of labor activists in New York City at the time. When their leadership called upon them, they showed up. And I, like them, showed up when Abe Dolgen called upon me.
I would stand in the heat of Seventh Avenue in New Yorkís Garment District, watching these men assemble and feel the great pride to be standing next to my father at the head of these brigades. They would carry yard sticks over their right shoulders, as soldiers carry their riffles. Many of them were in fact veterans of either Korea or WWII. They had plenty of combat experience. They had fought the anti-union goons in organizing campaigns. They had fought the mob influences in their industry (some, like my father, more than others). They had fought for our country. Some fought to escape Nazism. Some survived the Holocaust. Some, like my father survived the Russian Revolution and the Civil War that followed. I was proud to be among them and to be by my fatherís side, by their leaderís side.
As I marched uptown unto Fifth Avenue and then past the reviewing stands, I remember the international President of the AFL-CIO, George Meany and his wife, recognizing me and calling out to me from the stands. It was the most wonderful place to be. I was expected to be there and I wanted to be there. I cherished those times.
Clearly as a teenager, marching with my yardstick over my right shoulder, I had no idea that I was witnessing the apex of the American Labor movement and in fact my fatherís union. The years and decades that have past have seen the diminishment of organized labor in America. However, it has not diminished what organized labor has accomplished for America and what men like my father did for their country.
On this Labor Day I remind myself and any others that may read this that my father was a great man. What he worked for and accomplished was honorable. He helped our country become a place of greater social decency. I miss him very much.
What I also miss is the sense of pride and obligation that I used to have back in those days. I do not feel obligated to stand side by side anyone in any parade. I am not familiar with any leaders who would inspire that sense of obligation or pride of being in their presence. I sense that our country has a growing lack of leadership and that few of us would care at all to march anywhere with anyone for anything. I hope that changes. I sense that it must.
But for now, on a personal level, I look back at those Labor Days and those Parades and honor the man I loved the most, my father. I thank him for what he was to me and for what he did for his men and our country.
David P. Dolgen resides in the San Diego area where he is active in a variety of civic, cultural and business activities and along with his wife, Ellen Sarver Dolgen, is a principal in their private investment firm Dolgen Ventures. He has been active in politics for over fifty years, since his parents first took him to his first political rally to hear Eleanor Roosevelt speak on behalf of Adlai Stevensonís campaign for President in 1956. Most recently he served as a member of the Obama for America National Finance Committee and as a founder and Co-Chair of the San Diego Obama, Jewish Community Leadership Committee. His diverse professional life has spanned activities in politics, banking, and real estate. His early political life and activities centered on the civil rights movement, voter registration campaigns, labor politics, and support for Israel.