Public Comment

Commentary: Farewell to the Local Labor Community

By Nicholas E. Smith
Tuesday March 20, 2007

As my final meeting as chairman of the City of Berkeley’s Commission on Labor draws near, I thought I’d to take a minute to give my farewell to the local labor community and to Berkeley residents. 

This all began for me exactly three years ago when I was appointed by Councilmember Kriss Worthington to the city’s Labor Commission in March of 2004. I must confess that Councilmember Worthington took a leap of faith in appointing me, a Berkeley freshman at the time, to this policy body. I maintain infinite thanks for this honor.  

Since my appointment, my colleagues and I have been involved with a wide array of labor activism, legislating, and in contact with in the labor community.  

In brief, my initial foray into the wider struggles of labor came with the dispute between employees and management at the Claremont Resort and Spa. The dispute was contractural in nature, as are many others, including those at the Berkeley Honda, the Shattuck Cinema and Hornblower Cruises. I saw then and continue to see employees who put in many hours on the job only to see little to nothing left at the end of their pay periods for savings. We all know that access to well-paying jobs with adequate benefits should not be optional for anyone in this city, state, or country and it is our responsibility to stand up and speak out. I’ve said before that it’s frustrating to see the increasing number of disputes that divide employees from employers, but I’m made optimistic by the fact that even when one is disadvantaged, the community mobilizes in support of fairness.  

One of the interesting lessons I’ve learned is that although some like to divide the labor and business communities as inherently liberal versus conservative, it is important not see them strictly this way. I prefer to see union organization as employees taking more ownership in their destinies. At the same time, it is important to congratulate companies who engage in positive business practices becasue there are those who do not. 

In addition to supporting fair practices of those related to the previously mentioned disputes, the Commission has recently passed two significant ordinances for City Council consideration. The first is the “Sweatshop Free Berkeley Ordinance,” which if passed by the City Council, would ban government from purchasing garments and other items from organizations (and their subsidiaries) that engage in sweatshop labor. Secondly, the commission passed a “Right-to-Know Ordinance” which protects consumers by stating that local hotels are to notify their customers of a work stoppage (such as a strike) in that could result in hardships of some type. The latter policy emerged as a result of issues surrounding the Claremont Resort and Spa campaign. 

I see these actions as a continuation of Berkeley’s tradition of speaking for those without a voice, and for diversity. No one should be ashamed of this fact. These actions also carry on the legacy of a Berkeley legend, Maudelle Shirek, who was instrumental in creating the Labor Commission and politically inspiring those such as mayor and former Congressman Ron Dellums, and Congresswoman Barbara Lee and even me. She would be proud to note that the commission is one of the most diverse in the city with two African Americans, two Hispanics, and four students.  

Maudelle would want us all to continue to stand up and speak out. So although this is a farewell of sorts, I’m well aware that there is much more work to be done. So, I’ll see you around. Thank you Berkeley! 


Nicholas E. Smith is the outgoing chairman of the Commission on Labor, a member of the Housing Advisory Commission, and a Cal Berkeley senior.