Nothing clears a room in Orange County faster than asking people publicly if they know the origins of Labor Day or even want to know.
Talk openly about the May Day massacre at Chicago’s Haymarket Square in 1886 (which gave birth to the May 1 worldwide Workers Day celebrations) or the ensuing use of the U.S. military against striking workers in the Pullman railroad strike of 1894 (which launched the alternative U.S. version known as Labor Day -- on the other end of summer) and you trigger a nervous mass exit.
By the time you start talking about Orange County’s 1936 Citrus Strike, the looks from people make you feel like County Supervisor Todd Spitzer is about to storm in and handcuff you.
“I’m not a laborer,” says one gym mate. “I’m not connected to any of that.”
“All it (Labor Day) means to me is waves.”
“You don’t feel a connection to an eight-hour work day?” I ask. “The concept of the weekend?”
With today’s ever-widening income gap, I remain stunned at how the folks who invented the weekend continue to lose the PR battle against corporate America, with most polls estimating union households today barely representing 11 percent of the workforce.
A large part of that is because our nation’s difficult, and often violent, labor relations history just isn’t widely discussed in public, much less debated or delved into.
Especially in Orange County.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s appointees to the OC Fair & Event Center Board of Directors are looking to change that, unveiling a unique Labor Day monument today in Costa Mesa whose central aim is to stimulate an ongoing discussion about workers, around a table.
Called the “Table of Dignity,” the rammed-earth exhibit is centered around a 14-ton boulder celebrating the contributions of farm workers to Orange County – crafting a large seating area where visitors can appreciate the toiling of agricultural workers and their battles for fair wages.
According to a news release, the exhibit pays specific tribute to Mexican American organizers, many of whom were jailed, beaten and deported during the violent Citrus Strike of 1936.
OC Weekly Editor Gustavo Arrellano recently focused media attention on this violent chapter of the county’s history, with an expose titled "Gunkist Oranges", after local historians largely ignored it for years.
“The project reflects a new willingness to remember not only the titans of business and commerce, but the workers whose toil and sacrifice laid the foundation for future prosperity,” said Nick Berardino, a member of the Fair Board. “The Board came to an agreement that it was in everyone’s best interest, the children, the history of this county, to embrace singularly, the achievement of the great men and women who were farm workers.”
In an interesting twist, the "Table of Dignity" will forever sit right across the street from Costa Mesa city hall – a ground zero of sorts in recent years for labor wars in Orange County.
Today, from 10 a.m. to noon at the fairgrounds, hundreds of union workers marching under their banners, the Marching Saints of Santa Ana High School, Banda De Guerra – a Mexican Military Band -- and the American Legion Color Guard will perform at the memorial site.
With county government labor leaders at Defcon 1 (AKA "Cocked Pistol") over county supervisors’ recent aggressive attacks to deny their collective bargaining rights, Monday’s Labor Day event will provide the first public opportunity to hear perspectives on where this developing labor war is headed to next.
Orange County Supervisors publicly challenged county labor leaders recently, ignoring recent judicial decisions – against the public counsel of their own attorney – because it would call on them to repeal a controversial labor negotiations ordinance known as COIN, which is popular in certain circles of the OC GOP.
First unveiled in Costa Mesa by Mayor Steve Mensinger, COIN seeks to make labor negotiations more transparent by heightening public information about contracts before key public votes.
State Senator John Moorlach got the approach approved for county labor negotiations during his last term in office as a county supervisor.
Labor officials have since successfully challenged the approach in judicial proceedings.
Orange County Employee Association board members – who are all full-time, frontline county department workers elected to their slots -- and General Manager Jennifer Muir recently publicly confronted county supervisors on their failure to repeal the ordinance.
Labor leaders have attacked proposals such as COIN calling them unbalanced because county supervisors won’t apply that same kind of real-time scrutiny to big multi-million dollar contracts over things like Information Technology, which generate lucrative contributions back to supervisors’ campaign war chests.
With an ongoing ballot initiative to establish a county Ethics Commission, county supervisors are particularly sensitive to corruption allegations, especially given ongoing scandals involving the abrupt exit of the county human resources director, the Chief Operating Officer’s role in a million dollar contract scam at OC Parks, along with shaken IT contacts, animal shelters and auditors.
Given all that, it’s no surprise they aren’t exactly excited to jump into the ring on labor negotiations.