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Alameda Labor Council barbecue

Politicians hunt labor’s vote at annual picnic

on September 7, 2010

Candidates, union leaders, and everyday workers took turns eating and campaigning along the Oakland waterfront Labor Day afternoon to celebrate the spirit of the holiday and discuss the plight of California’s unemployed.

The Alameda Labor Council (ALC) hosted Monday’s annual barbecue at the city’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Regional Shoreline Park, featuring Democratic politicians including gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown, Senate incumbent Barbara Boxer and California Congresswoman Barbara Lee. An audience of several hundred people stood in line for barbecued meat and fresh watermelon, patronized the booths set up by campaign backers, and listened to the speakers address labor issues.

“Partly it’s a celebration, but unions are so critical to just maintain the standards and living conditions for working people in this country,” said Jess Alexander, an electrician with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “It’d be nice to say we’ll improve or move things forward, but we’re just struggling to stay afloat.”

While Monday’s holiday was a day off for some, an increasing number of people no longer have jobs to return to. A study prepared for the Oakland Workforce Investment Board found that over 17 percent of Oakland residents are unemployed. Alexander said that attendence at the Labor Council event had swelled since a year ago, and attributed the boost in turnout to widespread downsizing.

“Maybe it’s just because so many people are laid off,” Alexander said. “They’re like ‘Okay, we’ll at least go have a good time.’ It’s cheap entertainment for a group of people who might not have been working lately.”

The California Nurses Association opened the event with an elaborate portrayal of gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman as a queen, complete with queenly regalia, and senate candidate Carly Fiorina as a princess with a golden parasol. According to Labor Council organizer Beth Trimarco, the association has been “dogging Meg Whitman for months” with the parody.

An ersatz Goldman Sachs, personified by a man in a full tuxedo, introduced the two Republican candidates as though commencing an award ceremony. “My name is Goldman Sachs, and I’m here to make a presentation of the ‘Golden Hatchet Awards’ for excellence in the field of layoffs,” the actor said, to the sound of a booing audience. “To Queen Meg of California and Princess Carly!”

The focus was squarely on jobs as each speaker took the podium. Former Oakland mayor and current California Attorney General Jerry Brown proposed an alternative energy plan to employ 500,000 Californians, and cast his opponent, Whitman, as an ally of the rich elite. “This is a really important election¬—there’s no more important in the whole country,” Brown said. “The choice is stark. You’ve got Whitman riding around in her gilded bubble … I want to go back to Sacramento and make California work again, with you and for you.”

Bob Britton, chair of the Labor Council’s picnic committee, said he believes the future of the middle class is at stake in November’s election. He pointed to the slogan on his shirt promoting the “one hour of power” campaign, a mobilization effort to elect politicians who support the common laborer. “We’re asking everyone here today to give one hour to campaign for our candidates in November,” Britton said. “We’ll be running phone banks and precinct walking in order to elect good candidates for working people.”

While most people cheered and waved signs for the Democratic candidates, others in attendance said they were reserving their opinions in order to make a careful judgment. Johnny Allen, an in-home support care worker, said the gathering allowed union workers to assess whether candidates would support them when making tough decisions in office.

“It’s a pretty good barbecue out here today,” Allen said. “But the main thing is that when we come together on Labor Day, our candidate comes down and speaks to us so we can know where they stand in support of working people. Because a lot of candidates will tell you, ‘Yeah, we’re behind your back,’ but then when the ship’s sailing in, they’re ready to jump off overboard.”

Alexander said he has been a long time supporter of Congresswoman Lee. He said the most convincing way for a candidate to prove their commitment to unions is to employ their services. “It was good to hear Barbara Lee talking,” Alexander said. “When I was an apprentice electrician, I got the opportunity to work on her house … As an elected official, she’s helped California have a strong economy, and as an individual she puts her money where her mouth is.”

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20100908_wagstaff_LABOR|Voices from the picnic|

20100908_wagstaff_LABOR|Voices from the picnic|

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