New York City’s Labor Day parade has a grand, but in recent years fading, tradition, so for this year’s parade the city’s union leaders are seeking to put more meaning, oomph — and oompah — into the proceedings.
In most years the parade’s grand marshal is a glad-handing politician or garrulous union president, but this year it will be a group of wounded veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
To honor those who have fought overseas, union officials have designated the Wounded Warrior Project, a nationwide group of wounded veterans, as the grand marshal.
“The labor movement has always had strong patriotic ties,” said Gary La Barbera, president of the New York City Central Labor Council, the federation of unions that organizes the parade and represents more than one million workers. “We felt it was very appropriate this year to remember and recognize our wounded warriors. No matter how unpopular the war in Iraq is, we have to remember and salute these fine men and women who dedicated themselves to the service of country.”
This year’s parade is scheduled not on Labor Day, but on the Saturday after that holiday. The parade’s organizers switched from Labor Day a decade ago because many potential marchers were reluctant to leave what is often their last day of summer vacation, whether on the Jersey Shore or in the Poconos, to join a parade in Manhattan.
By holding this year’s parade on Sept. 6, the city’s unions will avoid competition with the West Indian American Day Carnival Parade in Brooklyn, which is traditionally held on Labor Day and is a massive procession of immigrant workers — although with better music and a livelier beat than the Labor Day parade.
This September, the organizers of the labor parade are hoping to add some zip — and attract more spectators — by adding far more music and bands to the parade, as its moves up Fifth Avenue after stepping off at 42nd Street. There will be marching bands, bagpipe bands and a jazz band of professionals from Local 802 of the musicians’ union. There will even be a salsa band.
“The Labor Day parade isn’t often a spectator parade, because the spectators are marching in the parade,” Mr. La Barbera said. “We want to change that. We expect to become more of a spectator parade by having more music and more bands.”
Union leaders are predicting 50,000 marchers, which would be less than one-third the number in many Labor Day parades decades ago. In the 1960s, for instance, the parades were huge affairs, usually led by mayors or secretaries of labor, followed by garment cutters with their yardsticks, printers in their aprons and burly sailors wearing their caps.
“These parades were once very big affairs, but they became rather dull and ritualized, and they became less and less effective,” said Joshua B. Freeman, a labor historian at the City University Graduate Center and the author of “Working-Class New York”
“So now we’re seeing an effort not to always do the same thing to add some energy to the parade and make it more effective,” he said.
Last year, labor leaders defied tradition — the nation’s first Labor Day parade was held in Manhattan in 1882 — and decided against holding the parade. Instead, they organized a rally at ground zero to back federal legislation that would provide long-term monitoring and treatment for people exposed to dust in Lower Manhattan during the cleanup after the 9/11 attacks.
Even though it was not the first time the parade was skipped, some people viewed the decision as another nail in organized labor’s coffin. Ed Ott, the labor council’s executive director, called that a misreading of events.
“We decided last year that we would from time to time have an event other than a parade,” he said. “It’s important for organized labor to honor its traditions. It’s important to have the Labor Day parade to call attention to the achievements of organized labor.”
In inviting the Wounded Warrior Project to lead the parade, labor leaders are seeking to underline the importance of unions and employers helping to find jobs for wounded veterans.
“We agree with the group’s motto, ‘The greatest casualty is being forgotten,’ ” Mr. La Barbera said. He praised an effort, called Helmets to Hardhats, in which several building trades unions have sought to place veterans leaving the armed forces in good construction jobs.
Jeremy Chwat, executive vice president for public awareness of the Wounded Warrior Project, said his group expected that 20 wounded veterans would lead the parade. “Unions,” he said, “are part of the fabric of this city, and for them to acknowledge the sacrifices of wounded warriors, it’s tremendously gratifying and a true honor.”
The decision to make the Wounded Warriors Project the grand marshal comes as the nation’s union movement has sought to strengthen ties with veterans and hunters by forming labor-veteran and labor-sportsmen groups. The A.F.L.-C.I.O. has encouraged such efforts, in part to persuade union members who are hunters and veterans and might be leaning Republican to focus more on pocketbook issues when they vote, in the hope that they will back union-endorsed candidates.
The organizers planned to emphasize several themes at this year’s parade, including labor’s support for universal health coverage and a federal law that would make it easier for workers to unionize.
Although this is a presidential election year, the parade will focus less on politics than in years past, partly because New York is a blue state where the labor-backed candidate, Barack Obama, is expected to win.
“We’re not emphasizing politics, although if Barack Obama were in New York, that would change things,” Mr. Ott said. “We recognize that he will probably be campaigning in some swing states.”
The labor council has extended invitations to Gov. David A. Paterson, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and scores of other politicians, many of whom will no doubt attend a pre-parade breakfast at the Roosevelt Hotel to show their support and solidify their ties with labor.
Stuart Appelbaum, the chairman of the parade and president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, is intent on keeping a healthy dose of politics in the parade.
“Unions are going to be very engaged in this election campaign, and I think the Labor Day parade is an initial step for us,” he said. “We want to see big margins coming out of New York State. It’s not just about being elected. It’s about the ability to govern, and that means giving the next president a strong mandate.”