September 5, 2008 Volume 109 Number 17

Curtain falls on AFL-CIO Union Industries Show

Labor’s “Greatest Show on Earth” — the AFL-CIO Union Industries Show — has been canceled.

Sponsored by the Union Label & Service Trades Department, the show has been held annually since 1950. Portland was a host city three times. The most recent Portland show was 2005, which attracted tens of thousands of guests to the Oregon Convention Center. Previous shows were held here in 1992 and 1962.

Seattle hosted its only show in 1956.

“I don’t think it will ever come back,” said Charlie Mercer, president of the Label & Service Trades Department for the past 14 years.

Mercer told the NW Labor Press that many international unions are focusing on the Internet and Web sites such as YouTube to reach broader audiences.

“They think they can get more bang for their buck going that route,” Mercer said. “I’m an old fuddy-duddy. I’m not the right person to expand using the Internet.”

Mercer retired on Sept. 1. His successor is Richard Kline, director of communications for the Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics & Allied Workers International Union.

Mercer said the Union Label & Service Trades Department, which is funded by per capita payments from international unions (and not by the AFL-CIO), was crippled when the Change to Win federation peeled off six unions.

“UFCW (United Food and Commericial Workers) accounted for one-third of our department’s income,” said Mercer, who spent 31 years working for the UFCW before taking over the Label Trades Department.

A spate of mergers also didn’t help the department’s bottom line.

The first Union Industries Show was held in Cincinnati in 1938, when the U.S. economy was still in the throes of the Great Depression. According to the Union Label & Trades Department archives, 24 international unions and 58 exhibitors staffed 230 booths at the show. It welcomed more than 178,000 visitors and gave away some $20,000 worth of prizes.

In introducing the first show, American Federation of Labor (AFL) President William Green declared it as a “momentous national educational campaign never before attempted.”

“The public does need to look for the Union Labels of the AFL and its affiliated national and international unions, plainly imprinted upon thousands of products in various fields, proving that the particular articles were produced under ideal conditions by fairly paid workers who feel a just pride in their craftsmanship,” Green said.

World War II prevented the show from continuing. It returned in 1946 in St. Louis, and was held every two years until 1950, when it became an annual event — each year in a different city.

The Union Industries Show always featured the latest in union-made automobiles and accessories, motorcycles, hardware, clothing, sporting goods, furniture, baked goods, appliances, housewares and more.

In 1992, the NW Labor Press reported on the many “technological innovations” at the show. One of the biggest hits among visitors was a high definition television.

One of the show’s visitors was Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton.

“That was one of the great things about the show,” Mercer said. “I would come into a town and all the local unions would get together. Members would get involved. Families would get involved” to help plan it. “Then for three days you open the doors to the public and show off your stuff.”

Alongside all the product displays and giveaways were exhibits by skilled service providers, including teachers, air traffic controllers, health care professionals, firefighters and letter carriers. And skilled craft workers would demonstrate everything from ornate sheet metal work to bricklaying, decorative plastering, iron work, electrical work and intricate glass crafts.

In the early years, show visitors were entertained by many of the biggest stars from the entertainment world — including Bob Hope and Lana Turner (pictured above), and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. Dwight D. Eisenhower cut the ribbon to open the show one year.

“This is an event that has inspired me and hundreds of thousands of working Americans since 1938,” Mercer said. “I’m going to miss it.”

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