Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, trade unionists in the state celebrated Labor Day in a big way, and the biggest bash was always the Central Labor Council picnic at the Alameda County Fair Grounds.
At a time when trade unions represented more than 50 percent of the nation’s workforce, and before “the labor beat” at newspapers became a quaint relic, like manual typewriters and hot lead type, politicians would flock to the picnic to court the favor of the rank and file and union leaders alike.
Thirty years before Democratic senior statesman Bill Cavala nostalgically recalled that annual scene, in this 2007 essay, a 39-year old Gov. Jerry Brown made the rounds of the picnic on Labor Day, along with a host of other pols, including a young and lean assemblyman named Bill Lockyer.
Amid signs of the times displayed by workers, carrying such messages as “Boycott Coors Beer,” “Don’t Buy Salem-Vantage non-union cigarettes” and “Union carpenters make better studs,” Brown thundered an anti-free trade message to a crowd of about 3,000 on Sept. 5, 1977.
“We take capital accumulated by the sweat of American labor and export it to foreign sweatshops and then import it to compete with our own goods,” he said. “For those multinational corporations that don’t want economic justice for workers, let’s tell them to keep their products out of California and out of the United States.”
Brown’s dare-to-struggle-dare-to-win protectionist views, which reached full flower in his 1992 “We the People” campaign for president, have evolved and grown murkier since then. What’s more intriguing to recall about that long-ago holiday celebrating American workers, however, is how many of the issues of the day remain salient in 2009.
For example, Brown told a future Calbuzzer following him around that day that he favored labor’s top priority — national legislation to speed up the process of union representation elections — a precursor of the “card check” measure now stalled in Congress that is a primary goal for labor three decades later.
Then, as now, Brown trumpeted his creation of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board as a signal event proving his support for unions; in 1977, just as in 2009, the Bay Area Transit District was beset by labor problems that had moved to the brink of a strike (the governor declined to comment, calling it a “a local problem”); Brown back then forecast that solar power would become not only an important source of energy, but also of jobs, a position that draws fewer smirks and eye-rolling from reporters today than back in the day.
In the years since, organized labor’s influence in the economy has steadily declined, with less than 20 percent of the workforce now represented by unions. One big caveat: two unions in particular, the California Teachers Association (CTA) and the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) continue to exert outsized influence in California through their strangle-hold on legislative Democrats.
Still, this year’s Labor Day message in California, by labor federation chief Art Pulaski is a sober one:
“This Labor Day one in three workers will be stuck on the job, many toiling for too little pay and fewer benefits like health care and retirement benefits. The irony of workers having to go to work on a day that honors them is symptomatic of the overarching problems facing our state.”
Happy Labor Day, even if you’re stuck at work.
For the record: None of the candidates for governor* had a Labor Day public appearance.
*Does not include Meg Whitman, whose secretive, paranoid campaign did not respond to inquiries about her schedule.