In The News
Psst. Explore Milwaukee’s free festival secret
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Posted Aug. 29, 2011
Free parking all day in lots directly outside Summerfest. Gate admission also free. So two normally $10 to $20 costs just vanished
Inside are clowns, face painting, jugglers, magic and playlands awaiting children of all families on a professionally supervised stage just inside the walkway along the Lake Michigan shore. For older kids and adults, there is an exhibition of pro wrestling slightly to the south, all day live dance music at the Miller Stage, exhibition areas and tents around the grounds.
All this on a national day off - the Labor Day holiday Monday, September 5, that honors America's workers, so it's quite fitting that this free for all festival known as Laborfest is underwritten by unions, aided by corporate sponsors.
While run by volunteers - as are many ethnic festivals in Milwaukee's flag unfurling summer fun - this one is open to all families, children and adults for free, from noon to 5 p.m. at Summerfest.
That's unique, as is how Laborfest starts out. The City of Festivals Parade only exists in memory. The Laborfest parade remains and has expanded. It is now doubly unique, actually two combined parades, all featuring volunteers. They go through Downtown (Wisconsin Ave. east, then south on Milwaukee St., then Chicago Ave. into Summerfest) starting 11 a.m. at Zeidler Union Square Park, with free shuttles to the parade for people who park at Summerfest and those who want to watch. Since traditionally thousands are in the parade while clumps of citizens watch, the shuttles starting at 8 a.m. and ending with a final pickup about 10 a.m. get people to the parade as many enjoy the walk back. Union members also have busses within the parade for their locals’ retirees.
Union families, affiliates, invited guests such as Voces de la Frontera and the hundreds of volunteers in the People's Parade are all part of a special community outpouring of creativity and celebration of labor. Zeidler Park from 8 a.m. on has become something of an advance Laborfest party for participants as they not only get ready but meet, share food and laughs, line up their mechanical behemoths and organize under watchful marshals. Meanwhile, hundreds of motorcycles and vintage cars and even boats along with trucks put on their best outfits and gear up for the big 11 a.m. march.
Yet for years, all of this was such a home-grown family affair for working neighbors that Laborfest grew accustomed to maximum advance preparation and minimal advance media publicity – certainly compared to the ethnic festivals. Among those quite conscious of the event are politicians who know it is a good place to meet and greet future voters, but they know the rules. None can march in the parade unless invited to join a union's contingent.
Yet many families in the communities, particularly those without members in a union, are every summer newly shocked to learn that all these free goodies exist at our great place on a great lake, and that it's all part of the giving side of organized labor, without lectures, lures or preaching.
That sometimes makes Laborfest one of the best-kept open secrets of Milwaukee's summer - but some of that is self-inflicted because unions never sought the media publicity others pursue, and simply pay the way and control the proceedings, They do worry about their members first while opening it all up to the community at large. Part of the problem is that the events at Laborfest are designed to please everyone but Laborfest has always focused on being a gathering of unionized working families.
Among the things that have changed the emphasis -- without unions even trying -- is the political equation this year. It seems to have taken even union issues out of the hands of unions themselves.
What a political year this has been! Unions forced to justify their mere existence! It's one thing to argue about what public workers are paid, but quite another when the legislature does something no one expected -- that is, passing laws that threaten the basic rights of workers to collectively speak to their bosses and take remedial action against the deliberately obtuse.
Many in the GOP thought (hoped?) unions would get ornery and destructive about all this. Instead they and their allies got busy in angry but civil fashion. Loud. yes. Chant-happy, definitely. But what evaporated was all that GOP hoopla about thuggery. In fact, their harping about the big bad unions made the conservatives look wimpy and made a lot of folks long for one of those boisterous family gatherings with music and laughter they enjoy at Miller Park tailgates and in the parks.
Enter Laborfest, that longstanding reminder that unions cooperate, are caring members of community and church -- and also know how to eat, drink and party.
Visibility for Laborfest was heightened last year by the visit and speech from President Obama. In truth, the security and strictures required by that visit may have drawn more people than normal, but it also interfered with the typical flow of people and family events. No such discombobulating is expected this year. In fact, the organizers have been meeting all summer to make sure.
The combination of all these movements, from the presence of unions joining nonunion folks in rallies in Madison, around the state and in recall activities, from national attention in the media, to recall elections that remind people that the state is pretty even in its philosophical splits, brings to the forefront a festival that has actually been part of the community for decades.
It's surprising how many people not in unions have asked their union friends, "Say, can anyone go?" Well, of course they can and do.
A big proof of that interest occurred in August at the record-breaking in crowd attendance Wisconsin State Fair. Let's be honest, the biggest attraction at the Union Label Booth in the cavernous Exhibition Hall was the chance to see and buy tickets for the Street Glide motorcycle being raffled off at Laborfest - and you don't have to be there to win. But hundreds of fairgoers were also snatching up the big blue fist LABORFEST.11 poster on a red field with all the details of the festival.
With higher interest, let's expand some of the details to help spread the news around.
THE 11 A.M. PARADE Shuttle Free. Park your car or motorcycle at one of three marked lots across the street from Summerfest gates and grab the ATU operated county busses arranged by the union to carry people back for free to the parade assembly area from 8 a.m. onward.
Assembly. Most unions will search out placards and identify their gathering spot for the parade at Zeidler Park, between 3rd and 4th just south of Michigan St. But the Laborfest Cruise & Car Show will assemble for the parade on 4th St. between Wisconsin and Wells. So that's a special pre-parade display of Harleys and vintage (pre-1991) American-made automobiles for passersby. The first 100 to register will sport special dash plaques and also be displayed throughout Laborfest in the north area of Maier Festival Park (Summerfest).
Big Blue Fist. It's become a famous symbol of "Stand With Wisconsin" and has been adopted as the motto for Laborfest. A hug papier-mâché version will lead off the parade right behind the vintage cars and then be parked inside the main Summerfest gate.
The Parade Within the Parade. Full details. The Milwaukee Public Theatre (414-347-1685) and the Milwaukee Mask and Puppet Theatre are spearheading the third annual parade project as part of the Laborfest parade and Summerfest party, both as a big finale to the parade itself and then on display as a pageant on the grounds.
Hundreds of artists, youth and families from throughout Milwaukee have been doing much of the preparation in workshops, performance training and building projects in a 35,000 square foot space in the former Linen & Things shop in the Grand Avenue mall. There volunteers transform cardboard, bits of found fabric, paper bags and plastic into giant puppets, masks and floats for the parade and pageant. This is a unique process of public art and these puppets will traverse out of the Grand Avenue and join the pre-parade show near Zeidler Park.
Around the Grounds. In the children's area, look for the regular stage shows with jugglers and magical revues. Check out the face painting, stories and games with the Pocket Lady, clowns, the Castle-Bounce and other entertainment, with trained volunteers supervising the children. Shows are scheduled at the children’s stage about 12:30 p.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.
Elsewhere, the offerings are constant. Big band Nightlife will set the music off as the parade finalists enter. Then the popular band, Spider George and the Web, will rock the place with its big brass assortment of oldies and arrangements at the Miller Stage.
Reynaldo and his trained crew are sketch artistes who will capture your personality in a few strokes and present them to you as a gift. Free raffles (boxes to drop names into) are spotted around the grounds -- culminating at afternoon's end with the one raffle requiring a ticket purchase for cash prizes and the grand prize -- a 2012 Street Glide, the handsome new Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
Add in Bingo at the Mid-Gate Pavilion, corporate mascots, a display of vintage American automobiles at the north end of the grounds and many of Summerfest's traditional and popular vendors offering food and drinks. Operating Engineers Local 139 has also arranged free Koepsell popcorn from a wagon.
The Midwest Association of pro wrestlers will offer matches at a ring in the sports area. The Union Exhibition Tent will feature displays and demonstrations, while volunteers will operate a nearby labor table.
Plus Stuff to Wear or Carry. Many will have been ordered by unions in advance but look on the grounds for sales of any remaining We Are Wisconsin shirts and the Laborfest T-Shirt with "We Are One" on the back and the "We Are Wisconsin Blue Fist" on the front. You can also pick up raffle tickets to win the 2012 Harley Davidson Street Glide. Raffle tickets are $6 each or 2 for $10. That raffle also includes a number of cash prizes.
At 5 p.m., after the Harley raffle, there is an event that is not on the schedule and is accidentally quite entertaining. It's called "Clean-up!" when union volunteers take down Laborfest, rushing with surprising organization to fold up chairs, take down banners and put Summerfest back into normal order.