Undergraduates spend spring break learning firsthand about Bay Area labor history
Berkeley, CA–Over the recent spring break, the UC Berkeley Labor Center brought together 20 ambitious undergraduates to understand the long history of labor organizing across the Bay Area, and to learn from workers currently organizing for a better workplace and community.
The Labor Center hosted its second annual Solidarity Spring, a three-day jam-packed “alternative Spring Break” that sought to spark student interest in the rich culture and history of the labor movement, and involve students in current organizing campaigns in the Bay Area. Solidarity Spring was organized by student workers in collaboration with the Labor Center’s Student Engagement team and highlighted the use of art, music and theater as tools for organizing.
Student organizers Esmeralda Lopez Flores and Vanessa Garcia, both UC Berkeley juniors, worked all semester to organize the event.
“The best thing about Solidarity Spring is that we had the freedom to plan as we saw fit, tailoring it to specific labor movement issues,” Flores said. “Every year Solidarity Spring has new exciting experiences to offer and a never-ending amount to teach and share with everyone who attends.”
Flores has family members who are farmworkers, who have informed her passion for pursuing research on labor issues, she said.
“Employment laws seem so exploitative, especially for marginalized communities,” she said. Once she began learning about the laws in labor courses, like those taught by Dr. Anibel Ferus-Comelo, she said her world opened up.
Vanessa Garcia wants to get involved in labor policy to help families like her own. She developed her concern for labor rights in the aftermath of a work accident her father experienced, when he fell off of a wet roof but received no medical help from his employer.
Three days immersed in Bay Area labor events
Solidarity Spring opened with an introduction to the history of student activism through short documentaries on the movements for Free Speech and Ethnic Studies drawing the links between past struggles and contemporary concerns about diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and justice. Students spent the afternoon helping the Oakland Education Association prepare to be strike-ready by painting banners and picket signs. The activity, led by David Solnit, a Bay Area art teacher and co-founder of Art and Revolution, produced artwork for Oakland teachers’ informational pickets. (Subsequently the Oakland Education Association struck for seven days before reaching a successful contract agreement that not only included substantial raises, but also common good measures supporting students and their families.)
Later in the day, students learned some time-honored labor songs led by members of the Freedom Song Network, a Bay Area-based chorus. The Network often sings on picket lines and at other labor events.
On day two, students interacted with workers at the California Academy of Sciences which publicly announced its effort to form a union as members of SEIU 1021.
Angelica Casas Murillo, a first-year student studying Ethnic Studies, felt connected to her own work experiences during the event.
“This was the first time I was given the opportunity to explore the Bay in an interactive way, the first time I learned of what a union really meant,” she said. Casas Murillo left the event inspired to bring art into the union space.
Later, students visited the California Labor School exhibit at San Francisco’s Tenderloin Museum, located in the heart of the city. The museum visit included a presentation by labor educator Bill Shields titled “Working Class Theater: from the California Labor School to Today.” The presentation featured oral history performed by members from SEIU Local 87 in Spanish and Mandarin, with translations into English and Arabic.
After the museum, Athena Huang, an exchange student studying accounting at UC Berkeley, was inspired to learn for the first time about the U.S. labor movement and other social struggles.
“I came to know that the eight-hour day and two-day weekend did not come without pain and blood,” she said. “Brave young people stood for the freedom to speak against authority, and we as students (of color) were welcomed in colleges in this country because students fought so hard for their rights to get educated.”
On the final day of Solidarity Spring, students discussed representations of working people in film and media. After a fruitful guided discussion, organizing committee members from the newly formed “Trader Joes United” union in Rockridge shared lessons from their union drive.
The group also toured San Francisco’s Embarcadero, led by Catherine Powell, the retired director of the San Francisco State University Labor Archives. They learned about the 1934 West Coast waterfront strike, which lasted almost three months when members of 21 unions who worked in every U.S. port along the West Coast staged a walkout. The strike peaked with the deaths of two workers, which is now famously referred to as “Bloody Thursday.” The students returned to Berkeley for dinner and a debrief of the week’s events.
First year student Casas Murillo summed up the week: “Solidarity Spring allowed me and many others who were a part of this experience to build new connections with others. That was eye-opening.”
Find out more about the UC Berkeley Labor Studies program.
The Labor Center would like to thank the Mario Savio Social Justice Program for supporting the second annual Solidarity Spring and all the facilitators and partners who helped this effort:
Esmeralda Lopez Flores
Dr. Anibel Ferus-Comelo
The Tenderloin Museum