Claudia Gambaro celebrated Labor Day and her birthday by serving dinner to hundreds of people she'd never met. For her, it was the perfect combination.
"Everybody should do stuff on their birthday that makes them happy and feeds their soul," she said during a break from filling trays with food. "Being a union person, I can't imagine not doing something on Labor Day. This really does feed my soul."
Gambaro, 46, a state biologist, was among 65 union workers and local dignitaries who spent their Labor Day holiday in the kitchen and over the grill at Loaves & Fishes, cooking and serving chicken dinner for more than 600 hungry Sacramentans.
"I love that Loaves & Fishes is so important to the community," said Gambaro, a steward for Service Employees International Union Local 1000. "They provide incredible services. It's pretty awesome celebrating a holiday so important to labor at this event and it's a gorgeous barbecue. Smell that chicken!"
The spicy scent attracted a crowd as hundreds of diners lined up for free dinner.
"This is a lot more fun than cutting onions; that was my job last Labor Day," said postal worker Mike Remmen, as he flipped chicken breasts on the grill. "This is a way we can give back to the community. It also puts a face on labor. We're here helping people."
The annual Loaves & Fishes barbecue has been a tradition for more than 25 years, said Greg Larkins, community services labor liaison for the AFL-CIO/United Way California Capital Region.
Donated by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 8, some 300 whole chickens became the main course for the meal, which also featured potato salad, corn on the cob, bread, watermelon and cake for dessert.
Labor Day still has a great deal of significance to local workers, Larkins said. Behind only New York City and Detroit, Sacramento ranks third nationally in percentage of union members in the overall workforce, he said.
Serving the Labor Day meal has become a tradition for many volunteers, said electrician Jon Thompson of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 340.
"There's just the desire to pass it along," he said. "We're doing OK; we've got a contract in place and a hopeful future. We want to spread that around."
Marking its 30th anniversary this year, Loaves & Fishes serves 650 to 800 clients a day, said director Tasha Murdock. The shelter averages about 17,000 meals a month. But the Labor Day dinner is special.
"There's always a big turnout for this event, and we appreciate it," Murdock said of the barbecue. "People want to know that they're not forgotten. This is a wonderful blessing."
Among the elected officials working the cafeteria line were state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, both Sacramento Democrats, as well as Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove.
"This is a great tradition," Steinberg said.
"The labor federation has every right to take the day off to celebrate but instead chose to take this opportunity to help people in need.
"I'm very proud of the labor community in Sacramento," he added.
"We've had tough economic times; things are getting better. A lot of people are working, but a lot of people have been hit with the hardest of hard times. It's very important to help."
Sacramento union members also spent Monday observing an important tenet of the labor movement: Being allowed time off.
Members of 93 unions came together for an afternoon picnic at Sacramento's William Land Park.
As a cover band played "All Along the Watchtower" not quite the pro-labor "Maggie's Farm," yet still Bob Dylan people stood in line for burgers and hot dogs provided by the Sacramento Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, which put on the event.
"We are celebrating work, and people who work hard and play by the rules" and deserve a fair wage, Central Labor Council executive secretary Bill Camp said.
Few people seemed affected by fat raindrops that occasionally fell on the park though late arrivals came prepared in hooded rain gear or carrying umbrellas.
Labor Council political director Kevin Ferreira said the event, started in 2001, is meant to promote "solidarity" among unions.
Monday's event drew about 2,000 people, including Galt High School teacher Jason Lopez and his family.
"I wanted to show the same support for my union that (it) shows for me," Lopez said.
Call The Bee's Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.