With the AFL-CIO split last year, and millions of undocumented workers fighting for their jobs, the climate is ripe for the Bay Area to celebrate its labor solidarity. San Francisco has long been a wealthy city, but it also has the most organized labor movement in the nation.
For 13 years, LaborFest has celebrated that movement here and around the world. This year’s festival celebrates labor history landmarks: the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the 1934 General Strike, the 1946 Oakland General Strike, and the 120th Anniversary of May Day and the turning point at Haymarket Square, where workers striking for an eight-hour workday led to the creation of International Worker’s Day across the globe.
“San Francisco has always been an international city,” Steve Zeltzer, one of the founders of LaborFest and a member of the Operating Engineers Local 39 Union, told the Guardian. “Its working class has always been an international working class. Workers have the same experience all over the world, and it’s important to have an international labor media and art network.”
In only three years, workers rebuilt San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. A photo exhibit at City Hall of historic photographs and contemporary images by Joseph A. Blum is one of the ongoing exhibits with this year’s LaborFest. A new mural by Mike Connor at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts depicts the city from rubble to bridge spans, under the banner “One Hundred Years of Working People’s Progress,” and includes scenes from the 1934 strike and an International Longshore and Warehouse Union Strike. Connor, a union electrician based in New York, has been showing labor paintings and murals with LaborFest since 2002.
“San Francisco is definitely a pro-union city, but today there’s a lot of people who don’t know the history of unions,” he told us. Connor’s paintings offer a visual tour of labor’s history. “If you keep people educated about unions and labor,” Connor said, “they don’t have to repeat history.”
So how did the city rebuild so quickly?
“Unlike New Orleans after (Hurricane) Katrina,” offered Seltzer, “San Francisco had organized labor for the ‘06 earthquake. After the ‘01 strike, where transit workers were brutally beaten by police, workers formed the Union Labor Party.”
The party ran candidates and swept offices, and by 1906 all city supervisors were Labor, including the mayor, Eugene Schmitz. Schmitz and the supervisors were eventually ousted or resigned in the face of graft and bribery charges, but the Labor Party remained strong. “San Francisco has had two labor mayors,” says Seltzer, “but today you wouldn’t even know it.”
The festival is global in its reach, with Japan, Turkey, Bolivia and Argentina among the countries in the LaborFest network holding their own art and video events. San Francisco workers have long celebrated solidarity with international laborers. The film Solidarity Has No Borders tells the story of San Francisco dock workers who, in 1997, refused to handle cargo in a ship sailing from Liverpool, where dockworkers were fighting for their rights demonstrate. According to Seltzer, Bay Area dock workers in the past have boycotted working with cargo from apartheid South Africa and El Salvador.
LaborFest does not limit its focus to unionized labor. Daisy Anarchy’s one-woman show Which Side Are You On? celebrates sex industry workers around the world. Sex-workers, either unionized like the Lusty Lady or not, are workers fighting against exploitation.
“The Labor Council supports them being organized,” said Zeltzer. “San Francisco is open to sex workers organizing more than anywhere else. They are workers like anyone else.”
This year’s May Day demonstrations were a historic development for the labor movement because undocumented workers are neither unionized nor organized. The massive marches in Chicago and Los Angeles alone represented millions of undocumented workers joined by organized labor and trade unionists. The film The Penthouse of Heaven- May Day Chicago 2006 features footage from the Chicago demonstration, the city whose Haymarket riots 120 years ago are some of the most prominent in labor history. A one-day strike for an eight-hour workday was held on May 1st, 1886. On the 4th, following a shooting and riot the previous day at a plant, a bomb exploded in Haymarket Square, killing eight police officers. Though the bomb thrower was never identified, seven men received death sentences.
Worldwide appeals for clemency led to the establishment of May 1 as International Worker’s Day across the world. The United States, however, has not adopted the holiday, but the mass demonstrations on May 1 of this year celebrated the country’s own international workers in solidarity.
The festival continues through July 31st, with historical walks commemorating the Oakland General Strike, labor films at the Roxie Theater, readings at Modern Times Bookstore, a Maritime History Boat Tour, and dozens of other events in San Francisco and Oakland. Go to www.laborfest.net  for a complete schedule.