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The Ghost in the Parade

Unions invite King Collins to leave town on the llama he rode in on.

I park my car in a lot shared by a funeral home and combination KFC/Taco Bell on Abbott Road, a fitting place to start combing through the ever-present ghosts of American Labor. South Buffalo always feels foreign to me, a place that seems structurally unchanged since it was built up to support the area’s lake economy of steel and grain. The biggest difference is that now those jobs are all gone and today union members will march down to Cazenovia Park in what should feel like a celebration of organized labor but can’t shake the spectre of a funerary procession. I haven’t even crossed the street and there’s the unmistakable blaring of a bagpipe following me out of the parking lot, coming from the drive-thru.

On the Sunday before Labor Day, my in-laws came for a visit. That morning we found our storm door had finally been done in by the previous night’s violent wind. The idea of replacing the door filled me with dread; I knew I couldn’t do it and if I tried it would end in failure. But my father-in-law said he would help me put it in. So I went out and bought a door and brought it home and almost instantly upon opening the box I started feeling dizzy and distempered. My father-in-law, however, was inspired with purpose. He told me I’d bought a nice door, one made in America, too. With the aid of some painkillers to dull his stinging knees and hip, he set about installing the door in just a few hours.

My father-in-law, as far as I know, has never belonged to a union. He’s worked in tool and die shops for most of his life, building special order machines and parts, often for the auto industry. He loves his work and has a wealth of experience, and I’m sure he’s well liked and respected; he’s got that way about him. He wears a baseball hat all the time and will talk to anybody. He has no pension, his retirement fund has been taking a beating, and his health benefits are scant. On the other hand, I work in an office and belong to a very large union, CSEA, making me eligible for very good health benefits and an attractive pension. The point isn’t that my job is easier—I doubt my father-in-law would have any greater aptitude for child welfare work than I do for installing storm doors. The point is, what kind of labor system do we have if people like my father-in-law are on the outside?

Most of the marchers begin to assemble outside the Irish Center around 11am, and union members flock to their respective parties on the street or parking lot. About 30 Teamsters on motorcycles pull in as I’m walking up, and I see four candidates for judgeships working the crowd: Diane Wray, Robert Russell, Sharon LoVallo, and Susan Eagan. I also see CWA, SEIU, D.C. #4, and the Boilermakers drinking beers on the street. CSEA seems to have gone all out: We have a float with a ragtime band, a man in a king’s costume to mimic current Erie County boss Chris Collins, flanked by two members in rat suits to protest Collins’ decision to leave rodent control in the hands of the towns. And then my personal favorite, three llamas with CSEA t-shirts stuffed around their necks.

Around 11:30am, supporters surround a press conference for the Democratic candidate for Erie County executive, Mark Poloncarz, who brandishes the new total for the number of lost jobs in Erie County during the last four years: 14,000, according to the New York State Department of Labor. At the end of his speech, parade organizers dress Poloncarz in the grand marshal’s sash.

The sky is heavy, gray, and altogether sinister-looking. The weather is cool, in the 60s. God favors the men in rat suits. Somewhere up ahead, where I imagine the grand marshal surrounded by legions of Irish dancers, the parade kicks off and we’re very slowly underway. My position in the parade isn’t close to any vehicles, but for some reason the exhaust fumes are intense and make me kind of sick. A co-worker explains to me that she was part of the team that hung the “Do Not Stand” signs up and down the street the day before, and the whole route smelled like weed. “I didn’t even see anyone smoking it, and it wasn’t me!” She says that closer to Mercy Hospital, the marijuana aroma gave way to that of hot garbage.

Marchers outnumber spectators by at least two to one. Most have small children who are diving after the candy being thrown their way, hitting the street first and teaching them valuable lessons about wrappers and hygiene. There are kids in the parade, too, whose mothers constantly admonish them not to aim the candy for the head. Ahead of me, carrying a long sign held up by three other marchers, is a jovial older man wishing everyone a Happy Labor Day and warning them to “never trust a rat.”

When the parade ends with hamburgers, hot dogs, and pop in the park, there’s a collegial atmosphere growing and I can’t escape feeling optimistic about my fellow man, seeing so many people in one place motivated by pride in their work. Most people just want to do their jobs and be given a decent standard of living in return and they’ll be happy, union or not. It surprised me that I wasn’t cynical after watching politicians work their campaigns all day; they all seemed genuine, and, like everyone else there, exuded pride in what they do.

Walking back over the bridge towards Abbott, I felt hopeful about the money-driven systemic failure that is our politics. (Collins has at least four times as much campaign money as Poloncarz.) The inner machinations of the system still read like the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, and trying to make sense of it is a lot like deciphering the KFC/Taco Bell menu combos. Buffalo’s politics wants to be good, and it tries to wear a positive face; but like the city itself, it’s cracked and broken.

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