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For Maria Somma, it is a dream come true. The native of Vietnam and naturalized citizen is one of the 265 union members who braved freezing temperatures today to join representatives from across the country and our armed forces to participate in the official inaugural parade for President Obama. The contingent of union members taking part in the parade include members from the AFL-CIO, Change to Win and the National Education Association.

With 15 union members riding a union-made float and 250 marchers alongside, the workers’ contingent was one of the largest groups in the parade. This is the first time in recent memory that workers have participated in the parade.

Somma, who lives in Pittsburgh, Pa., rode the float representing the AFL-CIO constituency group Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA). She says labor’s participation shows the power of the American Dream for all people:

‘It’s very exciting to be welcoming a person of color into the White House and to be a part of history. Even if it was minus 20, I would be glad to be here. This is an incredible achievement for this country. For Barack Obama to come from his background and rise to the top is not the typical American story. His inauguration is part of the transition of this nation to fully embrace all its citizens.’

Marching with a banner, “America’s Workers: United for Change,” participants also carried flags that represent the issues most important to working families: an Economy that Works for All, Great Public Schools, Good Jobs Green Jobs and Health Care for All. The overall theme of the labor float is “Honoring America’s Workers.”

Riding on the float and representing the Alliance for Retired Americans has a special significance for Jimmy Allen of Bowie, Md. The retired member of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), who is African American, says he’s seen a lot in his life, but

‘when it comes to an African American being president, I said I wouldn’t believe it until it happened. Now I can tell my grandchild that she can grow up and be president of the United States and mean it.’

The float was created by union carpenters, welders, sculptors and painters. Constructed of steel, wood and foam, it is more than 17 feet high and 24 feet long. Outlines of the diverse “faces of labor” surround the float as a salute to the backbone of our country — the hardworking men and women who make our nation strong.

Nancy Wohlforth, secretary-treasurer of the Office and Professional Workers, who represented Pride at Work on the float, says it displays the diversity of America’s workers:

‘These are the people who built America, who keep it working and will rebuild it in the future. It will also send a message to the president and Congress that working people are here and we can’t be neglected. They need to commit to rebuilding the middle class and the first thing should be to pass the Employee Free Choice Act.’

Fred Mason, president of the Maryland State and D.C. AFL-CIO, who spearheaded the drive to include the workers’ contingent in the parade, says:

‘The workers’ contingent is America at its best -– people of different races, faiths and professions coming together for a common good. These are the day-to-day heroes who make this nation great.’

Mason says nearly 1,500 groups applied to participate in the parade and only 100 were selected. The fact that the 265 workers will be in the parade is a real testament to the importance of working people and their issues to the well-being of the country, Mason adds.

Even if you couldn’t be here, you can honor this historic even with a commemorative AFL-CIO Obama T-shirt. The long-sleeve, union-designed and printed shirts say “Yes We Can” with the Inauguration Day date, January 20, 2009, under an image of President Obama on the front. The T-shirt sells with a suitable-for-framing commemorative poster for $30 from the The Union Shop Online. The shop also is offering a set of Obama’s books, ‘The Audacity of Hope’ and ‘Dreams from My Father,’ for $32.95 here.