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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Kinzlea Coffman, 2, gets a ride from her father, Jason Coffman, at the annual picnic celebrating organized labor at Headwaters Park.

Area unions celebrate at annual picnic

Leaders tout workers’ solidarity at traditional Labor Day event

On the face of it, the formula for the union-sponsored Labor Day picnic seems simple. Free food and drinks equal thousands of people flocking to the Headwaters Park pavilion.

But if you put aside the complimentary lunch, what keeps folks like Joyce Graham-Coats coming back year after year is the people.

“The fellowship, the camaraderie – it’s nice,” she said Monday. “You see people you haven’t seen all year.”

Graham-Coats, a retired nurse, has never been in a union, but she supports organized labor, considering that her husband is a United Auto Workers member, now retired from Navistar.

Her husband’s union, along with other local unions and businesses, makes donations to fund the annual picnic, a tradition that started in 1982.

“This is folks coming together, having a good time and realizing that being together is a really good idea,” said Tom Lewandowski, president of the Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council, the group that organizes the picnic.

Union members and their families were invited, along with “employed, unemployed and anxiously employed workers,” according to the Indiana AFL-CIO’s website. Lewandowski estimated that at least 7,000 people showed up.

The event featured free chili, hot dogs, ethnic dishes, ice cream, milk, soda and beer. On top of that, there were kids rides, balloon artists, face painting, bingo and live music.

George Gerdes, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 414, sees the picnic as a way for unions to promote themselves.

“If we don’t toot our own horns, no one else is going to toot them for us,” he said.

Gerdes recalled an era when union halls were social hubs in cities like Fort Wayne, and he lamented the present state of organized labor.

“Now it seems to be people feel lucky when they get a union job,” he said. “It’s not a way of life anymore.”

While the power of unions may be diminished, Lewandowski believes the picnic highlights the importance of people uniting to improve the community.

“No one person puts on this picnic. No one person’s responsible. We all are. This is an example of our culture of solidarity,” he said.

During Monday’s festivities, a few politicos stepped to the microphone, but their brief speeches were drowned out by the din of the crowd. Explaining this phenomenon, Lewandowski quipped:

“We serve hot dogs. We don’t necessarily honor them.”