Shoes | September 1, 2020 8:20 am

Can Red Wing Shoe Co. Reclaim Labor Day for American Workers?

With millions unemployed, the iconic brand is spearheading a campaign to hire people back

Red Wing Shoe Company storefront for the "Labor Day On" campaign
Red Wing Shoe Company is changing all 525 of its stores into job center on Labor Day.
Red Wing Shoe Company

“Let us, each Labor Day, hold a congress and formulate propositions for the amelioration of the people.” So said Lawrence McGann, a Democratic U.S. Representative from Illinois, during the first Labor Day parade in Chicago after it became a federal holiday. 

That was in the 1890s. Over a century later, not only has the American conception of Labor Day taken a U-turn from the original championing of workers’ rights — now it’s a one-two punch of consumerism, an end-of-summer blowout paired with a doorbuster frenzy to rival Black Friday — but its celebration in 2020 seems almost tasteless during a time when millions of people are unemployed as a result of the pandemic and the labor movement continues to be hamstrung from the top. Not to mention that Congress left for an August recess without providing an additional coronavirus relief package to the American people, and they won’t reconvene until September 8, the day after Labor Day.

So on September 7, when many Americans are grilling hot dogs and hamburgers and trying to forget about the pandemic, Red Wing Shoe Company is opening up its 525-plus storefronts which will be converted into one-day job centers. Not only that, but the Minnesota-based footwear manufacturer will be utilizing its social media channels and customer service line (800-RED-WING) to cater to job seekers, and it hopes to inspire other companies to do the same.

“We play this unusual role: I’m an employer of the skilled trades, but I also need to provide boots for the skilled trades,” Dave Schneider, chief marketing Officer at Red Wing, tells InsideHook. “We have a significant manufacturing operation, we’ve got a lot of open jobs we’re trying to fill at this point in time … So we saw it as an opportunity for us to impact culture, impact our own hiring practices [and] provide a value to those that are looking for jobs.”

The initiative is called Labor Day On, referring to the fact that, for the huge swath of unemployed Americans, this September 7 won’t be a “day off.” 

“The way we look at it is we want to be a sponsor of this effort — call it title sponsor, if you will — but we also are trying to enable and really bring together many other brands and businesses to participate,” explained Schneider. 

If Red Wing is going to succeed in making a dent in the historic unemployment the country is facing, the worst since the Great Depression, they’ll need all the help they can get. After all, while Red Wing is an iconic brand that’s kept its roots in its namesake Minnesota town since 1905 — and operates manufacturing facilities there and in Potosi, Missouri — they still only employ just north of 2,000 people.

That means, when Red Wing’s Labor Day On initiative kicks in, it will only be promoting about 80 jobs in both its manufacturing and retail operations, which is a significant number for the size of the business, but, obviously, paltry in terms of the need of the country. So apart from the call to arms to others, Red Wing will be promoting local jobs outside its company at each of its stores; store managers have been tasked with collecting listings for openings in skilled trades, which they’ll have available to those who walk in on Labor Day looking for work.

“I think an important footnote to this is that why couldn’t [job seekers] just go to Indeed or Monster or something like that?” said Schneider. “It’s because a lot of the skilled trades positions don’t always appear on those national job search boards.”

In its announcement, Red Wing says it’s “aiming to help the 25 million unemployed Americans find jobs on Labor Day,” which is, of course, impossible. This is unquestionably a marketing tactic on their part; Schneider even admitted that Droga5, a New York City advertising agency, suggested the campaign to them. But unlike other COVID-era marketing gimmicks that Americans have been beat over the head with while streaming during quarantine — collected smartly in the viral video “Every Covid-19 Commercial is Exactly the Same” — this one is, dare we say it, actually inspiring. 

Instead of trying to get you to cry on your couch and order more stuff from Amazon, this is a rallying cry to tackle the real issues Americans are facing. Even their video ad, which admittedly does feature a somber voiceover, is interactive, clicking out to open job listings. There’s not a pair of leather Red Wing boots in sight. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, Red Wing furloughed a significant portion of its manufacturing and retail employees — what Schneider calls the “doomsday furloughs” — though it has since gone back to operating at close to 100-percent capacity. But what happens if Red Wing connects unemployed Americans to jobs, whether at its company or others, and COVID-19 flares up again this fall and they’re out of a job again?

That is a problem too big for one U.S. heritage manufacturer to tackle. But if it does come to pass, maybe during that surge of the coronavirus, which has killed over 180,000 people to date in this country, we’ll get fewer vapid commercials and more decisive action.