BLOOMINGTON — Even as entire industries halted and pieces of the economy crumbled over the last 18 months because of the coronavirus pandemic, roads were still maintained, garbage collection continued and education went on.
Behind the preservation of those essential public services and others were workers — and backing their health and safety amid fluid state-imposed mandates and measures, was organized labor.
That relationship characterized the theme — "Labor, Stronger than Ever" — of the 2021 Bloomington Labor Day parade, as more than a dozen area trade unions, hundreds of their members, heavy construction equipment, marching bands, nonprofit organizations and local politicians marched through downtown Bloomington to Miller Park.
"Throughout all of the challenges every worker has faced in the last year, we've come back stronger," said Renee Nestler, representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31. "We've had to be creative; we've had to be patient; we've had to be flexible; we've developed new skills and had to do things differently through the whole year."
The pandemic especially spotlighted where employers were lacking in areas of on-the-job work safety and fair wages, Nestler said. And in those cases, unions stepped in to advocate for employees.
"Keeping workers safe has been very important this past year and will continue to be going forward," Nestler said. "Wages have lagged behind … we want workers to be paid what they're worth and they've certainly demonstrated it over the last year."
AFSCME represents more than 90,000 active and retired employees, including 165 city of Bloomington employees through Local 699.
Overall, Nestler said the organization has seen a boost in membership and involvement in the last 18 months because local chapters have served as sources of information on regulations and as negotiators in impact bargaining.
"We're trying to protect jobs and protect lives on the job," Nestler said.
That primary role of the union spans more than a century, and Labor Day, which first became an official federal holiday in 1894, does too.
Monday's parade also marked the city's 130th celebration of the event — Bloomington’s first Labor Day Parade was in 1891, after Illinois declared it a state holiday — and its return after the pandemic canceled the 2020 march.
Celebrating Monday his 44th year as a coordinator of the parade and his 56th year in labor was John Penn, vice president of the Midwest Region of Laborers International Union of North America.
Pointing to the massive $2 trillion infrastructure plan pitched this year by President Joe Biden and Gov. J.B. Pritzker's $45 billion Rebuild Illinois capital program signed in 2019, Penn said he was optimistic about both the comeback and the future of labor.
"We've got great growth coming," said Penn. "We're gonna have a lot of work and if you look around here, you look at these young men (and women), we're bring in a lot of young apprentices — all the trades are."
Penn said that after four years under former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and former President Donald Trump, construction tradespeople are "now paving streets, pouring sidewalks and building buildings, which is what we're supposed to be doing."
And what the state does next to create jobs, finalize a clean energy plan and "can or can't do in rebounding from COVID" depends on labor and management forces coming together, said state Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington.
"Labor is very important in that entire movement," Brady said.
One model of the ideal economic development-labor symbiosis is on display in the Twin Cities, where new homes continue to go up and major players like Rivian Automotive keep expanding through the hands of local laborers, said Normal Mayor Chris Koos.
Working people in the community — "they built this community, they built Bloomington-Normal and have a long history of quality workmanship and dedication," Koos said.
"There's an incredible amount of work being done in this community right now and I think Rivian is taking the lion's share of skilled labor finishing out that plant," Koos said. "I think we're going to see this kind of activity for the next five to seven years."
Photos: Bloomington Labor Day Parade resumes after year of COVID-19
Contact Timothy Eggert at (309) 820-3276. Follow him on Twitter: @TimothyMEggert