More than a century of local labor history is painted on the floodwall in Paducah, Ky.
Says local labor leader Jeff Wiggins:
Union labor built a lot of Paducah, including this floodwall. It’s appropriate that our history is here for everybody to see.
Working people are the subject of a mural on the tall, concrete high water barrier decorated with several scenes of Paducah history. Wiggins, a member of United Steelworkers Local 9447-5 and president of the Western Kentucky Area Council, AFL-CIO, says, “A lot of tourists come to see the floodwall murals.”
We’re glad union history is up there. Union history doesn’t get much play in a lot of places.
The artwork highlights the old Ohio River city’s traditional Labor Day Parade, one of the oldest such processions in the country. According to Wiggins, the first parade was in 1893, while America’s first Labor Day Parade was just 11 years earlier.
Several unions, union members and others chipped in $12,500 for the 12-by-20-foot panel, created by critically-acclaimed muralist Robert Dafford of Lafayette, La. “I doubt there is anything like this mural anywhere in the country,” says Wiggins, who is also on the Kentucky State AFL-CIO Executive Board.
Glenn Dowdy, a former Area Council president, led the mural project, according to Wiggins. “This was Glenn’s baby,” he says. “Without him, it probably wouldn’t have happened.”
Dowdy says the fund drive began in 2001, after the council approved the project. After all:
You can’t tell where you’re going if you don’t know your own history.
The council began in 1892 when it was chartered as the Paducah Central Labor Union. The CLU was an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor, which Samuel Gompers helped start in 1886.
The old CLU charter hangs in the council hall. The document bears the large signatures of Gompers and Peter J. McGuire. McGuire and Matthew Maguire, also labor pioneers, are credited with organizing the country’s inaugural Labor Day Parade in New York City in 1882. Says Wiggins:
We like to think McGuire and Maguire are the great-grandfathers of our Labor Day parade.
Eventually, the Paducah CLU became the Paducah Central Labor Council. The CLC became the Area Council after the merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1955.
The CLU hosted the first Paducah Labor Day parades. Writing on the 50th anniversary of the festivities, Fred G. Neuman, author, city historian and president of Typographical Union Local 134, recalled,
It was no small thing for a group of craftsmen to band themselves into a unit of fair dealing a half century ago when the governing was rough and every wave sought to upset labor’s newly launched ship.
The union-sponsored parades ended after World War II. Several union activists organized the Western Kentucky Labor Day Committee, an all-volunteer group and resurrected the processions in 1975.
Wiggins is president of the committee, which sponsors a three-day Labor Day weekend festival. In addition to the parade, the program includes barbecue, free entertainment, a flea market and political speaking.
Under Dowdy’s tenure as Labor Day committee president, the Paducah parade was the official Kentucky State AFL-CIO Labor Day celebration.
The floodwall mural depicts a parade from the 1970s. Union members are marching with a banner emblazoned with “SOLIDARITY,” the union thread that binds us all together, and Wiggins notes that the artwork shows the faces of several of our old-time union leaders into the painting, including W.C. Young, a national union and civil rights leader from Paducah, who appears just above the letter “T” on the banner.