Posted by: Kath Usitalo | September 9, 2010

Every Day Is Labor Day In Detroit

The arcs of "Transcending" do not meet

The official recognition of Labor Day across the U.S. was Monday, but here in Union Town Detroit every day is Labor Day, as commemorated in the Michigan Labor Legacy landmark on the city’s riverfront Hart Plaza.

Apparently the nation’s largest public work of art that honors union workers, it was dedicated in August 2003 in honor of the city’s 300th birthday, which was in 2001.

I wonder if the newly anointed UAW President Bob King will fix the centerpiece of the $1.5 million sculpture: The two, 63-foot tall stainless steel arcs reach toward each other, but do not meet at the top. I think it symbolizes the broken labor movement.

At their peak in the 1950s unions employed 35% of workers; the figure was 20% about 20 years ago. In early 2010 only 12.3% of all workers belong to unions, with more than half local, state and federal government jobs. Just 7.2% of employees in the private sector belong to unions.

Oops… I see in an informational document by the Michigan Labor History Society (MLHS), which initiated the commemorative art project, that the two arcs are not broken like the union membership drive; they are “open at the top to symbolize labor’s unfinished work.”

The MLHS asked artists to dream up a “work of art to inform the public about labor’s history, honor the working women and men who built our city, and inspire visitors with labor’s vision for a better future.”

"Equality," a bronze relief on a chunk of granite, by De Giusti

The winning multi-piece work titled “Transcending” is by two Michigan artists: David Barr, who is responsible for the broken circle, and Sergio De Giusti, who created a series of beautiful bronze reliefs that are applied to huge chunks of Vermont granite placed around the broken circle.

A spiral walkway around the base includes a dozen stones engraved with achievements of organized labor, simply stated, such as “Right to Organize” and “Ending Child Labor.” Then there’s “Job Security” (how’s that working out for you, Mr. and Ms. Union Worker?).

And though “Shorter Worktime, More Leisure” has been accomplished, I doubt the union powers-that-be intended to achieve it through double-digit unemployment.

But wait, there’s more! On a stage-like platform near the broken circle are engraved quotes about labor and social justice from folks just like the workers in the factory or the firefighters risking their lives.

Quotes from people like President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who proclaimed, “If I went to work in a factory the first thing I’d do is join a union.” (Note that the operative word from this member of what was one of the wealthiest families in New York is “If.”)

One of the infamous quotes engraved on the plaza

Another quote for the ages reads, “If the Federal Government can pay farmers for not growing food they can subsidize honest jobs for people.” Wise words from the late Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young, hardly the expert on holding an honest job.

Wonder if this ran through Jimmy Hoffa's mind on the day he vanished in 1975

“Transcending” is worth spending some time pondering, whether or not you’ve ever been a member of a union.

It’s installed along Jefferson Avenue at the foot of Woodward Avenue, near the site on the Detroit River  where, in 1701, Frenchman Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac established a settlement at the Straits, d’Etroit, accompanied by his (non-union) crew.

Visitor Info Click: Detroit

Click HERE for a fascinating spherical panoramic view of the artwork by David Mariotti (and scroll down on that page for panoramas of other Detroit scenes)

A bronze piece by De Giusti



  1. Love this post, Kathleen. You’ve summed it up quite nicely!

    • Thanks!

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