Berry Craig, recording secretary for the Paducah-based Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council and a professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College, is a former daily newspaper and Associated Press columnist and currently a member of AFT Local 1360. Craig sends us this.
Jay Latham never cuts his grass on Labor Day.
The 82-year-old UAW retiree from Benton, Ky., would rather rev up his yellow and green riding mower for Labor Day parades in nearby Paducah.
Latham is in the lineup for the 37th annual end-of-summer holiday procession in the largest town in deep western Kentucky.
He’s a regular in the Paducah parade, one of the Bluegrass State's biggest Labor Day observances. The celebration includes a picnic, which features barbecue and political speaking, both spicy hot.
“You never know what he's going to do or what he's going to bring, and that's what makes it exciting,” says Brandon Duncan, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 727 and head of the Western Kentucky Labor Day Committee, an all-volunteer group that puts on the Paducah program.
Jeff Wiggins, president of USW Local 9447 and a former Labor Day Committee president, agrees with his union brother.
It's not a Labor Day parade without Jay and his spinning top behind his riding mower.
The “top” is a converted wire spool, about two feet tall. Latham calls it his “grinder of Republican lies, spin and propaganda.” It’s festooned with a pair of little American flags and plastered with signs boasting labor-endorsed candidates. Two more flags flutter from the front of the motorized grass cutter, above a "UAW Western Kentucky Retired Workers Council" sign.
An old windshield wiper motor wired to a 12-volt battery slowly spins the spool. The contraption rides on a turntable mounted on a pair of tiny wheels.
Latham made it all by himself.
Like many Kentuckians of his generation, he migrated to Detroit or the Motor City’s environs to work in the auto industry. Before he retired to his home state, the Bremen, Ky., native spent 28 years at the big Buick plant in Flint, Mich. He packed a UAW card the whole time.
When I left in ’93, there were 9,500 people working there. The plant’s gone now.
But Latham is still "union all the way." He’s active in the Benton-based UAW retirees' group he plugs with his mower sign.
He’s still passionate about politics, too. Latham is a devout Democrat.
Go back to Franklin Roosevelt. You can thank the Democrats for everything that’s been good for working men and women.
Latham is good for the Paducah Labor Day parade, according to Democrat Gerald Watkins, who is leaving the city commission to run for the state legislature— with union support. “Everybody loves to see him on his mower pulling that little float."
Maybe everybody in Paducah, but not everybody everywhere else, Latham confesses.
He rides his mower in other area parades and says he has been welcomed every time but once.
In 2008, he was banned from a parade in a nearby “Republican stronghold county” and even arrested.
Latham, who was wearing an Obama-for-president T-shirt, objected to his ouster and produced his parade permit. Parade officials got angry and called the cops, who cuffed the then-septuagenarian and charged him with disorderly conduct. A local judge dismissed the charge.
They didn’t like what my signs said. But I was just an American expressing my freedom of speech and the freedom to participate in a free society.
Latham recalls that Sen. Mitch McConnell, the GOP's less-than-labor-friendly minority leader, was in town for the parade. He figures parade bosses or McConnell aides, or both, didn’t want a pro-Obama and pro-union float in the procession.
I think they thought they could intimidate me. But what they didn’t know is that when the going gets tough, the tough get going.
Latham plans to keep going to parades as long as he can straddle his mower and tow the “grinder.”
The gizmo also sports a half-dozen empty beer cans suspended on strings. “I call them 'GOP hot air wind chimes,’” Latham says with a chuckle. “They spin with the grinder, which grinds up all the Republican spin, lies and propaganda like Ed Schultz does on TV.”
Latham is a fan of "The Ed Show" on MSNBC.
Ed does not put out propaganda like Fox News does. Ed always has a video or something to back up what he is talking about. Ed has true grit, and you can take what he says to the bank. Ed's great. I'd love for him to come see my float.