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Indy’s Labor Day legacy: Understanding its past for a better present and future

Observing Labor Day recognizes the people who have fought and are still fighting for the right to unionize and rest

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Indy’s Labor Day legacy: Understanding its past for a better present and future
Several men are pictured outside of the Indiana Employment Security Division office in Indianapolis. The men told the Recorder that their Labor Day plans were hampered by joblessness. Unemployed on Labor Day.
(Indianapolis Recorder
Collection, Indiana Historical Society)

Nora Stockton made 75 cents an hour as a teenager at an Alabama Dairy Queen in the 1960s. She worked every day after school.

“My manager had a little notepad where she would write down my hours and pay. I didn’t know if she was paying me right or not. I grew up in a time where you just got what you could get and be happy with it,” said Stockton.

Her mother wanted more for her. So, she sent Stockton up north to Indianapolis to live with her aunt after high school.

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In Indianapolis, Stockton would work odd jobs, such as cafeteria worker at Crispus Attucks High School. However, it was inside the offices of Bryant, now Carrier Corporation, that she got her first glimpse at what it meant to work for more.

“I looked out my office window and saw my first strike. I was salaried, but they were steel workers. They were right across the street, and it wasn’t pretty to me; I had never seen that,” said Stockton.

She would eventually land a job at Allison Transmission. On her 91st day, she was offered the opportunity to join the local union.

“I asked, ‘What is that?’ and so they told me, but I said, ‘Y’all are going to do that for me?’ I didn’t believe them because no one did anything for us. I remember in 1978 when I started there, it was about union and solidarity,” said Stockton.

Labor Day in Indianapolis

“I’m from the south, which is different. It was about working for ‘the man.’ You didn’t challenge them. Now, I’m knee-deep involved in decades worth of work for us.”

Indy’s Labor Day legacy: Understanding its past for a better present and future
On Labor Day, September 3, 1984, hundreds of people representing labor participated in the Annual parade in downtown Indianapolis. Members of the Indiana Christian Leadership Conference are shown here getting their posters in support of organized labor ready for the parade. Labor Day Parade
(Indianapolis Recorder
Collection, Indiana Historical Society)

Observed the first Monday in September, Labor Day is an annual celebration of the social and economic achievements of American workers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The holiday is rooted in the late nineteenth century, when labor activists pushed for a federal holiday to recognize the many contributions workers have made to America’s strength, prosperity and well-being.

Indianapolis first observed Labor Day on Sunday, September 19, 1886.

However, from 1923-1936, there were no official observances of Labor Day. That was due in part to local anti-labor sentiments and the Great Depression.

According to records from the Indiana Historical Society, in 1945 some public stores observed Labor Day by closing and letting workers rest, highlighting the growing support behind Labor Day.

“Labor Day is especially important at this time because there are so many folks still in their jobs struggling to get proper wages and in poor conditions,” said Joanne Sanders, secretary-treasurer of the Central Indiana American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).

Despite its marked importance, there were no official Labor Day observances in Indiana until AFL-CIO along with the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 933 Union and Teamsters, another local union, jointly sponsored parades during the 1980s.

The importance of Labor Day

Indy’s Labor Day legacy: Understanding its past for a better present and future
Donna Barnett, a member of the Local 933 of the United Auto Workers (UAW), gets ready for the day’s activities in this photo. Labor Day Parade
(Indianapolis Recorder
Collection, Indiana Historical Society)

Stockton worked for Allison Transmission for 44 years before retiring. She still serves on the Executive Committee of Civil and Human Rights for UAW Local 933 in Indianapolis.

“Why is Labor Day so important? If we did not have a union, do you really think that we would be getting equal pay? That’s where organizing comes in. I was a part of state organizations. In the rain, sleet and snow, we were rallying for the causes we deemed important to workers,” said Stockton.

1982 was the first cohesive Labor Day Parade Indianapolis held in 40 years, according to records from the Indiana Historical Society.

The Indianapolis Recorder covered the 1983 Labor Day Parade, where the Indiana Christian Leadership Conference came out to support unions.

“At that time, the Indiana Christian Leadership Conference had five arms that we focused on; that was education, labor, religion, politics and economics. We still focus on them but in a different way now,” said the current executive director of the Indiana Christian Leadership Conference, Marilyn Gill.

Sharon Mallory [right], recently voted as "Labor Woman of the Year for 1983," was one of many women participating in a Labor Day March downtown. (Photo/Indianapolis Recorder archives)
Sharon Mallory [right], recently voted as “Labor Woman of the Year for 1983,” was one of many women participating in a Labor Day March downtown. Labor Day Parade
(Indianapolis Recorder
Collection, Indiana Historical Society)

Looking to Labor Day’s future

“We [AFL-CIO] have always been an ally to Christian Leadership and even the Urban League, ‘cause we had the same missions at heart, which was to help people get jobs so they can survive and be able to thrive in their communities,” said Sanders.

Even in retirement, Stockton is still doing a lot of work for labor union legislation, like rallying for Indiana’s Right-To-Work law.

The law prohibits employers and labor organizations from requiring anyone to join a union as a condition of their employment. They also cannot require someone to stay in a union when they do not want to.

“Seeing the journey from then to now is something. That’s why I tell young people it’s important to get involved. Get out there so you can make a difference if you want to see change,” said Stockton.

CLICK HERE for information on this year’s Indy Labor Fest.

Contact staff writer Jade Jackson at (317) 762-7853 or by email JadeJ@IndyRecorder.com. Follow her on Twitter @IAMJADEJACKSON

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