For Mike Matejka and the dozens of other volunteers planning a McLean County time-honored staple, Labor Day has always been about much more than just the end-cap to summer festivities.
“It’s an opportunity to recognize the hard work that people do,” said Matejka, who has a role in planning this year’s Labor Day parade in Bloomington. For 125 years, organizers within the county have initiated some form of celebration to mark the holiday.
In recent years, the parades, which are put on by the Bloomington and Normal Trades and Labor Assembly, are recognized as one of the largest across Illinois.
McLean County’s first recognition of laborer’s rights in 1891 came three years before Labor Day became an official U.S. holiday.
“We have an incredible work ethic in this community,” Matejka said. “For a long time, people have taken pride in the work they do.”
As with most long-lived events and venues, McLean County’s Labor Day recognition began small and unassumingly. The inaugural 1891 event was sparked by local concern over workers’ rights. A march to the home of Adlai Stevenson I took place that year. The group convened in Franklin Park.
Historical archives reveal parades continued locally through 1919, followed by picnics in the ensuing decades. Parades made brief comebacks in 1927 and 1935, but were otherwise dormant until a long-lived revival in 1977. In the nearly 40 years since, parades have been a constant in the community.
In addition to music from bands representing local high schools, Illinois State University and local union marching units, this year’s parade has taken a decidedly political theme.
With the November elections looming, organizers have themed this year’s program, “Protect Your Paycheck: Vote.” Local political leaders and representatives of community organizations will speak during the event.
“Our parade theme is a reminder that elections can have economic consequences,” said Ronn Morehead, president of the Bloomington and Normal Trades and Labor Assembly. “It is easy to get distracted by social or other issues, but who represents us in Springfield and Washington can greatly impact job rights and your paycheck.”
For his part, Matejka said he hopes this year’s program serves the dual purpose of celebrating McLean County’s long tradition of workmanship while simultaneously putting a spotlight on some of the challenges that have plagued the region — and, for that matter, the country.
“While our economy has improved (from the 2008 recession), the inequality is still out there,” Matejka said. “There’s a much greater disparity between those who are wealthy and those who are struggling to get by.”
Beyond the post-recession economy, Matejka added, “Wages have been pretty much stagnant for over 30 years now.”
As the final pieces of this year’s planning puzzle come together, organizers have announced this year’s grand marshal: Normal City Manager Mark Peterson. Matejka praised Peterson for what he described as “hav(ing) a very open door” toward running the town.
“It’s a tremendous honor,” Peterson said of the recognition. “I have to admit I was very surprised when I found out.”
Peterson said he and his family have long attended the local Labor Day parade. From his vantage point, it has evolved from its earliest days.
“It’s not just a celebration of labor,” he said. “It’s a celebration of this community.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Bloomington and Normal Trades and Labor Assembly
WHAT: Labor Day parade and 125th annual recognition of the holiday
WHEN: 10 a.m. Monday, Sept. 5
WHERE: Parade begins in downtown Bloomington, ends at Miller Park
INFORMATION: www.bntrades.org, (309) 828-8813
— McLean County’s Labor Day celebration reaches 125-year milestone —