Labor Day Parades in America date back more than a century, even before Labor Day was declared a federal holiday in 1884. Chicago has a long and storied history of Labor Day parades that pre-dates the establishment of the Chicago Federation of Labor.
Official records vary, but one can be certain that Chicago’s first Labor Day Parade took place in the 1880s. Labor Day parades in Chicago before the turn of the 20th century regularly involved upwards of 30,000 working men and women and drew thousands more onlookers. Roughly 75,000 workers turned out to march in the 1903 parade.
Early parades were massive and aimed to show the solidarity and sheer size of the labor movement. Parades were often followed by picnics where workers could enjoy a relaxing day off with their families after marching with their union. However, support for the parade waned in the 1940s and would eventually be discontinued in the 1950s.
In 1959, the East Side Labor Day Parade was established. Chicago’s Southeast Side has always had a strong connection to labor, and with the steel mills in operation and working families employed at U.S, Wisconsin, Republic, and Pressed Steel, the booming economy of the neighborhood gave rise to the celebration of union and labor achievements. The parade ran strong for over 30 years until its retirement in 1993.
The Chicago Federation of Labor revived the Labor Day Parade that traditionally marched through downtown Chicago in the 1980s. Iterations of the parade through the 80s and 90s often included a festival and picnic component, held in Grant Park. The 1982 parade and festival was held over several days and included musical performances by Count Basie and Glen Campbell. But the “downtown parade” once again went by the wayside in the 2000s.
Years later the tradition was revived by former 10th Ward Alderwoman Susan Sadlowski Garza in September 2015 with the support of local businesses, unions, and community members. The new parade ran down Ewing Avenue on the Southeast Side and was followed by Eddie Fest, featuring live music, food and fun for the whole family. Eddie Fest was named after Sadlowski Garza’s father, the legendary United Steelworkers activist Edward ‘Oilcan’ Sadlowski.
The 2023 Chicago Labor Day Parade and Eddie Fest is moving from the East Side, but not far. After Sadlowski Garza’s retirement in 2023, the parade and festival will move to the Pullman Historic District, which has been developing and highlighting its ties to the Chicago labor movement and labor history over the past few years.
Labor Day is an American holiday that celebrates and honors the contributions of working-class people. Organized and run by the Chicago Federation of Labor, the parade seeks to celebrate union pride, solidarity, and community togetherness. We look forward to hosting another successful event that families can enjoy for years to come.
Since 1896, the CFL has fought for economic, social, and racial justice for all working people. The CFL proudly represents 300 unions, who in turn represent approximately 500,000 working people in Chicago and Cook County.