Carol and I went to a Labor Day picnic in Alameda today. But this wasn’t your typical backyard barbeque. I’ve started singing with the Bay Area Labor Heritage Rockin’ Solidarity Chorus again, and the Chorus got invited to sing at a Labor Day celebration sponsored by the Alameda County Coalition of Unions.
Carol and I got to Alameda Point Park a little early, so we had time to wander around. Several of the unions had booths set up, and Carol got to talking with a nurse who was at the booth that said: “Lemon-Aid To Save Pediatrics.” The nurses union is trying to convince Kaiser Permanente not to shut down a pediatrics inpatient unit. The nurse told us that Kaiser is building a new hospital — a good thing, since the old Hayward hospital does not meet current state requirements for earthquakes — but the new facility will not include a pediatrics inpatient unit. We talked about the craziness of the health care industry these days, and we all agreed that Kaiser is one of the best health care providers out there — yet the health care market can cause event hem to make bad decisions.
The nurse had to go serve lemonade to someone else, so we walked around some more. I saw all kinds of people from all kinds of unions: teachers, nurses, cops, firefighters, electrical workers — I saw a sign for IFPTE Local 20 Engineers and Scientists of California, lots of t-shirts that said AFL-CIO, someone was wearing a button that said International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. This being the Bay Area, no one racial or ethnic group predominated. I saw parents with babies and little children; Carol pointed out one big man with a little boy on his lap; the man had a colorful Rosie the Riveter tattoo on his right bicep. Bigger kids without any parents nearby were running around playing together. Some firefighters from Alameda drove a big ladder truck around the periphery of the picnic area, and waved out the windows at the kids.
At some point, it hit me that we were all representatives of the eroding middle class. The people around me were people who managed to make it through the Great Recession still holding on to their decent middle class jobs with benefits. I’m one of those people. Even though Unitarian Universalist ministers aren’t unionized — all we have is a professional organization that is pretty toothless — ministers fit right in with cops and nurses and teachers and electricians. All of us in the middle class are facing the same problems: we feel lucky to have jobs, we’ve lost ground in terms of real wages over the past couple of decades, there are fewer full-time job openings than there were ten years ago. But we’re holding on. The middle class keeps shrinking, but we’re still in it. For the moment.
The director of the Labor Chorus showed up, and she found us a place at the opposite end of the picnic area from the rock band that was playing. We warmed up for a few minutes, then the rock band quit and it was time for us to get up on stage. Carol said that when we went on stage, it took awhile for people to realize that we weren’t going to be singing rock ‘n’ roll. It took a few minutes, she said, but then you could see people realizing that we were singing labor songs. Up on stage, I noticed that when we sang phrases like “We’re talking about dignity,” or “All we need is unions,” or “Don’t you cross that picket line,” I could hear some cheering. When we got to the final three songs, “Roll the Union On,” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” and “Solidarity Forever,” Carol said people started singing along — as you can see in this thirty second video clip of the final chorus of “Solidarity Forever”:
After our half hour set was over, we in the chorus all hung around for a while at the picnic, and ate hot dogs and veggies burgers cooked by guys wearing AFL-CIO t-shirts. It was a good way to celebrate Labor Day.