While some opted to spend Labor Day at the beach, or in a backyard barbecue, union enthusiasts gathered together at Idlewild Park in Reno to host the first ever Reno LaborFest.
In addition to food trucks, live music, a beer garden, a kid zone complete with bounce castles, obstacle courses, and more, over 40 local employers, employees, and union supporters braved the heat to provide information (and job opportunities!) on why organized labor is essential in today’s world.
Union representatives in every industry from construction to shipping, firefighting to teaching, and everything in between came out to engage with community members to speak to why unions are so important in our country – especially now.
“We’ve seen a rising interest in organizing across the country, with Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joes, REI, and a number of other companies,” said Wendy Colborne of the Northern Nevada Central Labor Council, one of the organizers of the event. “This is the best time to organize that there’s ever been in the United States. If you want to join a union or organize your workplace, there’s never been a better time to do it.”
Many representatives didn’t come to LaborFest to celebrate laborers and unions alone, but to offer job information to prospective employees – and even hands-on work.
Representatives from the Mountain West Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, for example, gave attendees (both children and prospective workers alike) the opportunity to help build a wall using mortar and bricks.
While allowing people a look at different labor jobs and wages was a major draw, an overarching theme of Reno LaborFest was also focused on how important unionizing is today.
“Income inequality is bigger than it’s ever been,” said Colborne. “If you look at the Jeff Bezoses, the Elon Musks of the world, and how they treat their workers, it’s pretty clear that there’s an alienation between people and their work. We want the workplace to be a place where you are treated with dignity and respect. A lot of companies, especially very big and wealthy companies, are not good at that right now.”
Mike Pilcher, President of the Northern Nevada Central Labor Council, spoke passionately to a gathered crowd about the importance of joining together, in the same manner workers came together in the 1940s to overcome fascism.
“There was an authoritarian movement [rising] across this globe, and we stamped it out – we joined together to stamp it out,” said Pilcher. “In that declaration of human rights from 1948 by world leaders, there were two essential tenets to establishing, restoring and continuity of democracy and it’s pretty simple: one was the right for workers to join together, two was the right for workers to bargain together. Those were essential tenants that are as important now as they were yesterday.”
Pilcher went on to say that the work of the labor movement would not be finished until every worker is able to share in the prosperity of the country they are helping to build every day.
“The labor movement will not rest until every worker realizes their right to stand together, toe to toe, shoulder to shoulder, arm in arm, and eventually share in the prosperity that they create day after day, week after week, year after year, with their backs and their brains and their hands in the richest country in the history of the world. We will not rest, we invite you to join us – that’s what today is all about: it’s about all of us.”
Colborne stated that due to the pandemic there has been no labor celebration for the past two years, and they wanted to bring the celebration back in a way that was more engaging than simply hosting a parade.
“Once we finally thought it was safe [after COVID shutdowns], we asked: how can we let people get a first hand view of labor, what it means and what it looks like in their community?” said Colborne. “We decided the best way to do that would be to have a festival.”
While Labor Day was first introduced as a national holiday in 1894, the very first Labor Day celebration was held on Sept. 5, 1882, in New York City, and was created to set aside a specific day for a “general holiday for the laboring classes.”
“They were the ones who said, ‘Workers have suffered enough, we built this country, we make the wheels of the economy turn – if we stop, everything will stop,’” said Colborne. “Today is a day to be grateful to workers, and for workers to take that day off, relax, enjoy it, and be treated the way you deserve.”
However, at Reno LaborFest, participants decided to spend the day not in a backyard barbecue, but rather by informing the community on why labor is important, and why unionizing should be celebrated.
LaborFest, at its core, is a way to bring labor directly to the community, in order to show them what’s possible, said Colborne.
One of those ways is introducing people to apprenticeships, and LiUNA! Local 169, among other programs, was on hand to do so.
LiUNA!, or Laborers’ Union Local, boasts half a million members across the country and is dedicated to pushing lawmakers to protect workplace rights while offering local apprenticeship programs closer to home.
The Laborer’s Apprenticeship Program for Northern Nevada is an “earn while you learn” two-year apprenticeship program, during which apprentices work for signatory contractors for 4000 hours, and take 300 hours of related training (both in the classroom and hands-on), while being provided a progressive scale wage based on journeyman wages.
The Northern Nevada Apprenticeship Coordinators Association (NNACA) also offers their own apprenticeship programs to become everything from bricklayers, construction craft laborers, electricians, elevator constructors, iron workers, energy workers, and many more, some of which list starting wages of around $30 per hour.
“Our apprenticeship programs are one of the best kept secrets in Northern Nevada,” said Colborne. “You can earn while you learn at these programs. You don’t take an apprentice into an apprenticeship program unless you have a job lined up for them at the same time. So you’re working, and you’re going to school, and it doesn’t cost you anything – in fact, you’re making money because you have a job that is teaching you. As it used to be.”
Pilcher also held a moment of silence for those front-line workers who lost their lives to COVID-19 over the past two years while ensuring that the country’s economy continued.
“As Mother Jones said, ‘Pray for the dead, and fight like Hell for the living,’” said Pilcher following the moment of silence.
COVID is one of the main reasons, according to Colborne, that organizing has become so prevalent in today’s world.
“This is a time that’s ripe for organizing because it’s become clearer than ever to workers how much their lives are worth in the wake of COVID,” said Colborne. “We were on the front line, continuing to make things work, even during the pandemic. Grocery store clerks, bus drivers, postal workers, railroad workers. All kinds of people were continuing to make the economy move along. This is an opportunity to join a union company where you are treated with respect and dignity.”
To learn more about Reno LaborFest, please visit https://www.renolaborfest.com
Kelsey Penrose grew up in Carson City, Nevada is an alumna of Arizona State University, and is currently pursuing a Master’s in Creative Writing with Sierra Nevada University. She lives and gardens in Washoe Valley. Support Kelsey’s work for the Sierra Nevada Ally here.
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