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Watch now: Bloomington-Normal leaders optimistic about local labor's future

At parade, local leaders express optimism for future

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A year off for the pandemic made for a bigger, better Labor Day Parade in Bloomington.

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.


Members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 197 are among more than a dozen labor organizations that marched during the Labor Day Parade on Lee Street in downtown Bloomington on Monday. The annual parade resumed after being canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 quarantine.

"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."

Renee Nestler


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." 


An Associated Firefighters of Illinois Honor Guard, Bloomington firefighters and members of firefighters Local 49 lead the Labor Day Parade in downtown Bloomington on Monday. Their presence was recognized as the nation remembers more than 340 firefighters who died serving in New York during the attack on the World Trade Towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

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.


Veterans of America's wars are recognized Monday as they ride a float sponsored by Rader Family Farms during the Labor Day Parade on Lee Street in downtown Bloomington. 

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. 


Retired Bloomington Assistant Fire Chief Nick Isaacs collects a donation Monday for the Muscular Dystrophy Association from Cayson Boston, 5, Normal. 

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." 

John Penn, Midwest Region Manager Laborers International Union of North America and LIUNA Vice-President


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. 


Lee Street was packed Monday as members of Operating Engineers Local 649 brought a large contingent of members during the Labor Day Parade in downtown Bloomington. 

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. 

Chris Koos

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."

Contact Timothy Eggert at (309) 820-3276. Follow him on Twitter: @TimothyMEggert


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"It took decades for labor unions to achieve decent conditions, with many bloody battles, lives lost and sacrifices before child labor became a memory, eight hours the workday and the weekend established," Penn writes.

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