Thousands attend annual Detroit Labor Day rally, vow to fight for better wages, conditions 

By: - September 5, 2023 5:05 am

Federal, state, and local elected officials as well as union leaders take part in the annual Detroit Labor Day parade and rally. | Ken Coleman

During the first Detroit Labor Day rally since 2019, thousands of union members and their supporters vowed to continue to support American workers and their collective bargaining efforts. 

National AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler participated in the effort. 

“We are all standing up because we have all sacrificed,” Shuler told the Advance moments before the start of the parade along Michigan Avenue just outside of downtown Detroit.  

The event comes as the United Auto Workers (UAW) approaches a Sept. 14 contract deadline with the Detroit Three: Ford, General Motors and Stellantis. 

The union, which represents nearly 150,000 employees of companies that manufacture U.S.-made vehicles, has been engaged since July in the labor negotiations with the Detroit Three.The union is fighting for increased wages, a 32-hour work week and better pension benefits, among other requests such as an end to tiered compensation between workers with different lengths of service. UAW members say tiered compensation hurts workplace morale and cripples their union.

The parade was not held in 2020, 2021 or 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, although several smaller gatherings, parades and rallies have occurred in recent years. 

“We are all standing up because we have all sacrificed,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler (center) told the Advance moments before the start of the parade along Michigan Avenue just outside of downtown Detroit. | Ken Coleman

Shuler was joined by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist; Ron Bieber, Michigan AFL-CIO president; Shawn Fain, UAW president; and Jason Anderson, American Federation of Government Employees vice president. 

Gilchrist pointed out that Democratic-led Michigan government has recently restored workers’ rights legislation that was outlawed by GOP-led government a little more than a decade ago.

“It’s because we know that we need everyone to have a path to economic security and the labor movement is an important part of that process,” Gilchrist told the Advance.  

A number of Democratic officials and candidates attended, including U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing); U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Ann Arbor), Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly); Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit); Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson; Attorney General Dana Nessel; state House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit); state Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit); state Rep. Stephanie Young (D-Detroit); state Sen. Darrin Camilleri (D-Trenton); former state Sen. Curtis Hertel (D-Lansing), state Sen. Kevin Hertel (D-St. Clair Shores); Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter; and former state Rep. Leslie Love, an American Federation of Teachers and SAG-AFTRA union member and a candidate for U.S. Senate. 

During the effort, lead participants locked arms, a throwback to 1960s civil and workers’ rights demonstrations. The year 2023 marks the 60th anniversary of the “Detroit Walk to Freedom” and “March on Washington,” both efforts featuring significant organized labor involvement. Then UAW President Walter Reuther and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a leading civil rights leader, participated in both efforts.

Shuler’s visit to the Motor City came just days after the release of new polling showing strong support for labor unions among the general public, especially among young people. Union membership grew by more than 273,000 in 2022 over the previous year to over 14.3 million, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics. 

The poll, conducted by GBAO Strategies that was released by the AFL-CIO on Tuesday shows an overwhelming majority supports unions and strikes, even majorities of Republicans and independents. Seven-in-ten (71%) approve of labor unions, while less than a fifth (19%) disapprove. Labor union approval transcends party—with 91% of Democrats, along with more than two-thirds (69%) of independents and half of Republicans (52%) approving.

Additionally, support for strikes further exceeds union approval. Three-fourths (75%) support “workers going on strike to negotiate for better wages, benefits, and working conditions” with nearly half (47%) strongly supporting doing so. Again, clear majorities of Democrats (93%), independents (73%), and Republicans (58%) support strikes.

The survey was conducted Aug. 1 to 8. with live dialers to cell phones and landlines and text-to-web interviews, and is subject to a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points. Sample demographics were balanced and weighted to match population estimates of registered voters.

The UAW on Monday released “Prosperity,” a video linking “the union’s fight for a strong Detroit Three contract to its history lifting millions of American families into the middle class,” according to its written statement. In the video, partly filmed at two practice pickets last month in Louisville, Fain tells of the poverty his grandparents endured in Kentucky and Tennessee and the prosperity they found in the UAW-organized auto plants of Kokomo, Ind.

“As the companies prospered, so did my family,” Fain says in the video. “That didn’t just magically happen. It happened because of the UAW. It happened because they and their coworkers came together, they organized and they fought for a greater share of the value they created.”

On Aug. 22, hundreds of United Auto Workers (UAW) members gathered for a rally in Warren. The rally, called “Solidarity Sunday,” included elected officials. Some participants wore t-shirts that read: “United We Stand, Divided We Fall” and “Same shift, different day.”


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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on Black life in Detroit.