Marty Frates, secretary treasurer of Teamsters Local 70, is supportive of Hillary Clinton, but wishes she would adopt some of Bernie Sanders' positions.

Labor Day picnic celebrates working person, attendees talk politics

on September 6, 2016

Union members from Oakland and surrounding cities came to Alameda Point Park on Monday to enjoy some free hot dogs and to celebrate their solidarity at the annual East Bay Labor Day picnic.

Balloons floated above the white tents organizers had set up on the grassy field. Fire fighters served the free lunch. Members of the Bakers Union gave away union-made cookies, Red Vines and Ghirardelli chocolate. Some people tossed beanbags while others played catch with a tennis ball. A band, Isaiah, played on a stage set up in front of a Teamsters big rig.

Richard Fierro, a Teamster Local 70 member and picnic organizer, said the games and music were exactly what event planners wanted. “We just want to put one day aside to really celebrate the working person,” he said.

Political activity, on the other hand, was not on the official program. But talk of the election could be heard coming from nearly every tent.

Almost everyone in this crowd spoke in favor of a Hillary Clinton presidency, even if they rarely showed much enthusiasm. Everybody who agreed to be interviewed was very much against sending Republican nominee Donald Trump to the White House.

Marty Frates, secretary-treasurer of Local 70, said independent contractors are undercutting “legitimate companies,” while the rise of the so-called “gig economy” threatens a lot of union jobs. Issues like those may eventually make it up to the U.S. Supreme Court, Frates said, so whoever gets elected this fall may be appointing the deciding vote on key labor matters.

U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a close ally of organized labor for decades who will be leaving office this term, came to the East Bay picnic with her husband. She honored the organizers’ ban on political speeches. But during an interview, she said the 2016 election will have a large effect on unions.

“If Trump is elected, it’s a whole different country, and working people would be in big trouble,” Boxer said. “With Hillary, I think you’d have someone who’d be supporting the movement toward paid family medical leave, free education, and all the things that we need which the unions support.”

Despite declining membership, unions are still a significant player in the political sphere because of their ability to campaign and organize voters and donations. Their influence drives many changes that are beneficial to all workers, Boxer said. She is among many who believe the federal minimum wage is one of the most important issues for labor, because when that wage is low it becomes difficult for unions to negotiate a higher wage for their members.

Keith Uriarte, Northern California regional director of Oakland-based Teamsters Local 2010, also had a lot to say about low minimum wages, and how tough it’s been to achieve increases. He pinned that on the Republicans, saying they have a habit of advancing policies allowing the rich to get richer.

Uriarte held down one corner of the park while in the opposite corner members of Teamsters Joint Council 7 grilled food for everybody. Despite the general lack of political focus, the Teamsters also set up a table to register new voters.

Josie Camacho, executive secretary-treasurer of the Alameda Labor Council, wasn’t able to attend on Monday, but in a phone interview said unions still have the means to show power when it can really make a difference. And she had some choice words for Trump and his talk of building a wall along the southern border with Mexico.

“We must fight to make sure we have a president who will embrace our community and not build an artificial wall, which is an extension of mean-spirited hatefulness against our people and our community,” Camacho said

Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center, said the Labor Day picnic is an important part of labor history in this country, a place for people from many local unions to meet and share ideas. It’s also a tradition for politicians to come and show support for labor, a tradition that has not been lost to history.

Anita Swanson, wife of Sandré Swanson, a Democrat from Oakland running for state Senate in the Ninth District in November, stood in front of the campaign’s tent greeting people that walked by with a brochure and a message.

“We are letting labor know that we are still their champion,” she said.

Staff Writers Alexandria Fuller, Alessandra Bergamin, Mary Newman, Rachel Cassandra and Pablo De La Hoya contributed to this story.

The national election was not on the menu at this year’s Labor Day Picnic, but it was definitely on the minds of attendees. (Audio piece by Alexandria Fuller, Alessandra Bergamin and Pablo De La Hoya)

Photo by Basil D Soufi
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