‘Family’ of workers march
Steelworkers local leads parade in downtown Bethlehem
A chance to combine a holiday event with history helped persuade Greg Yemm to bring his family Sunday morning to the Steelworkers union parade to mark Labor Day.
“The fact is, organized labor is about family,” Yemm said with his wife, Robyn, and their children, Lea and Connor, amid a block of marchers at the head of the parade.
“Every generation has seen the benefit of when the worker has the right to speak,” said Yemm, who lives in Jim Thorpe, works for Blue Ridge Communications as a field service representative, and is a member of Steelworkers Local 2599 of Bethlehem, which organized the event.
The 12th annual parade, which also marked the 125th anniversary of the federal holiday to celebrate the working person, stepped off from the Colonial Industrial Quarter, off Spring Street. It traveled along Main, Broad and New streets, before returning to the industrial quarter.
Most parade participants came from organized labor, including marchers and vehicles from Teamsters Local 773 and the Bethlehem Fire Department, which provided a firetruck that brought up the rear of the march. Bethlehem police assisted with traffic, and the Moravian College Greyhound Marching Band provided music.
Local and state politicians, political candidates and election volunteers attended, as did a group from Lehigh-Pocono Committee of Concern, better known as Lepoco, with several volunteers holding poles beneath a large sheet shaped as a peace dove.
The Steelworkers adorned an SUV with newspaper and other photographs of labor actions. Several shots showed a lengthy Steelworkers strike in 1941 against Bethlehem Steel Corp. That walkout brought to a head years of labor strife between Bethlehem Steel and its industrial workforce.
To Jerry Green, Local 2599 president, the photos represented the organizing mettle of today’s workers’ forefathers. “They paved the way for us to have better lives,” he said. “People on strike were threatened; some even died. My idea is I want to keep the movement alive here.
“At one time, we had 30,000 people working at that plant over there,” he said, referring to the south Bethlehem cluster of factories and offices, many of which have been razed and replaced. “Now we’re down to 1,200, but I’m not quitting.”
Those 1,200 workers in Local 2599 still represent steel or metal industries, including Lehigh Heavy Forge and Victaulic, but they also come from the public sector, for example, covering nurses at Northampton County’s Gracedale.
Nationally, union membership continues to be down. The Pew Research Center says in an online post that the share of American workers who belong to organized labor groups has fallen by about half during the last 35 years. In 2018, the unionization rate was 10.5%, with the actual number of members at 14.7 million, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Most spectators watched the parade along historic Main Street.
Those interviewed said they came out in support, even if they do not belong to unions.
“We just understand all the things unions have done for working people,” said Bob Lloyd of Upper Saucon Township, a nonunion software developer.
To Blue Ridge’s Yemm, who grew up in Salisbury Township and has been a longtime Steelworker, today’s workers need to keep their minds open to organizing.
“If you do nothing, nothing is ever going to change,” he said, walking with his family, who, like him, carried miniature American flags.
Members of Steelworkers Local 2599 lead the Steelworkers and Friends Labor Day Parade on Sunday morning in downtown Bethlehem.
A marcher carries a flag during the parade.
The Moravian College Greyhound Marching Band provides musical and flag-twirling entertainment during the Labor Day Parade.
Greg Yemm, left, and his daughter Lea, 10, son Conner, 7, and wife, Robyn, march past Moravian College in the Steelworkers and Friends Labor Day Parade on Sunday morning in downtown Bethlehem.
Workers ride on the Local 2599 float in the Steelworkers and Friends Labor Day Parade on Sunday in downtown Bethlehem.