Striking Out

news@sfbg.com

Today marks 1,575 days since concession workers at AT&T Park have had a raise, during which time the San Francisco Giants have been fabulously successful, both on and off the playing field.

The 750 workers represented by UNITE-HERE Local 2 are currently involved in frustrating and fruitless negotiations with their employer, Centerplate, a South Carolina-based food service company contracted by the Giants to sell beer, garlic fries, and other overpriced consumables at games.

The Giants and its front office seem fairly unconcerned about the plight of workers who proudly don the team’s logo and pad its revenues. Not a single concession worker that we interviewed for this article said that they work for Centerplate — each of them said that they work for the Giants.

Since the last contract expired in March 2010, the Giants have won two World Series championships, raised the average ticket price by 20 percent, and have seen the value of the team shoot up by $223 million. The only thing that hasn’t improved are the wages of the concession workers.

Cashiers currently make $16.40 per hour, in-seat runners make $13.40, and some entry-level workers make just $10.45, which is actually less the city’s minimum wage. That’s only legal because those workers were under contract for $10.45 per hour when the wage increased to $10.55 at the beginning of this year. And Centerplate won’t even let Giants workers have a tip jar to augment their substandard wages.

Local 2 reports that revenue from concessions is divided up in a 55-45 split between the team and Centerplate (the Giants PR office disputes this number, but it won’t divulge the actual split). So when a fan spends $17 for a hot dog and 16oz beer, Centerplate and its workers get $7.65 and the Giants get $9.35, all of it pure profit. And the Giants executives even set the concession prices, not Centerplate.

But the team says the plight of these workers isn’t its problem. “We continue to urge both parties to get back to the bargaining table and to have productive discussions so the matter can be resolved as quickly as possible. This dispute is between Centerplate and Local 2, not the Giants,” is the team’s public position on the issue.

The Giants communications office responded with this stance to every question the Guardian asked about the issues involved: What have you done to “urge” Centerplate to settle the contract? Couldn’t the Giants force a settlement if it really wanted to? Why haven’t concessions workers shared in the team’s success and rising revenues? How can you claim to support the community if you can’t even ensure the people who work in your stadium are paid minimum wage?

The Giants had nothing to say about a petition signed by 600 of the workers urging the team and Centerplate to agree to a deal, instituting a company-wide no-comment policy on the standoff with concession workers.

“It would be nice if they would come in and talk—not be a mediator, but to know what we’re asking for and say why they’re not providing it or why they feel they shouldn’t provide certain information,” Billie Feliciano, who has worked as a Giants cashier for more than 30 years, told us. “They could talk to the president of the union on that if they wanted to. You know, we’re not asking you to tell us how you spend your money. We just want to know how much control you have of this situation.”

Feliciano and her fellow workers just want the Giants to be team players.

 

 

WHO’S IN CONTROL?

Contrary to what the Giants may say, there is one pressing issue—job security for the workers—that is nearly impossible for the workers and Centerplate to resolve. Every worker interviewed for this story has explicitly said that job security is their most important goal.

Even Centerplate says only the Giants can offer job security to concession workers. If Centerplate goes out of business or loses its contract, the concession workers will likely lose their jobs, which is why they’re advocating for a succesorship clause that would guarantee their employment in that scenario.

When The Guardian inquired with the Giants office about the issue, its spokesperson once again responded, “This is an issue between the workers and Centerplate, not the Giants.”

But with the Giants controlling who runs its concession and how much they charge the fans, is Centerplate just an easy scapegoat for squeezing more profits from workers? Because on the subject of health benefits and wages, the two camps are separated by a wide chasm.

In order to qualify for healthcare, the workers need to work at least 10 games in a month (they’re eligible for health insurance only from June 1 through December 1) to have coverage a month later, which means that the health and well-being of the 750 workers hinges on Major League Baseball’s scheduler.

Workers almost got denied coverage for August because June only had nine games, but they ended up qualifying because they worked a private event at AT&T Park for the biotechnology firm Genentech.

Yet Centerplate wants to raise the number of qualifying games to 12, while Local 2 wants to keep it at 10 and grant healthcare coverage to workers who work every game in months with less than 10 games.

On wages, Centerplate has offered 25-cent increase in hourly pay, no retro raises for the years worked under the expired contract, and a $500 bonus. Though Local 2 has not put out an exact number on their wage demands, its spokesperson says Centerplate’s wage offers are beyond unacceptable; they’re insulting.

Centerplate’s main message in this quarrel is its insistence that the concessions workers are among the highest paid in the nation and that they accrue more benefits than most part-time workers. But the workers say that claim is misleading given the high cost of living in the Bay Area.

“If we were living in Dallas, Texas, I’d say yeah, we’re probably overpaid. But we’re not,” Anthony Wendelburger, who has been a cook for three years, told us.

The Bay Area is among the most expensive metropolitan areas in the nation. Last month, the business consultant Kiplinger published a list of the top 10 most expensive cities in the U.S. San Francisco was third behind Honolulu and New York, with nearby San Jose in fourth and Oakland eighth.

The average concessions worker makes around $11,000 in a year while some make upwards of $13,000 during the regular season. Based on differences in the cost of living, we calculate (using www.bankrate.com) that $11,000 translates to $7,760 if they served food and drinks for the Seattle Mariners, $7,880 for the Chicago Cubs or White Sox, and $6,530 for the Atlanta Braves.

 

 

THE OLD BALLGAME

At the Giants-Padres game on June 18, a Tuesday, several hundred protesters gathered at a rally to show support for the Giants concession workers. Most were affiliated with Local 2, but a few off-duty concession workers came to join the demonstration.

They implored the fans—most whom seemed to be just learning about the dispute—to abstain from purchasing any concession stand products. The rally started an hour before game time engulfed fans waiting in line with chants of “No justice, no garlic fries!” and “Ain’t no protest like an union protest because an union protest don’t stop!”

Inside the stadium, 44 protesters (all of whom had purchased tickets) staged a sit-in in front the garlic fries stand situated behind sections 122 and 123. Their numbers withered as the game progressed and by the fourth inning, the area in front of the stand was cleared and business resumed, with 10 protesters arrested for refusing to disperse.

That protest followed a more significant action on May 25, when all of the 750 workers staged an one day strike, authorized by a 500-16 vote by workers. For that game, Centerplate employed volunteer workers who only got paid in tips. Yes, the scabs got the tips that the regular workers are being denied.

Food and drink service during that game was significantly slower than normal, as even the Giants acknowledged. There were reports of fans standing up to 40 minutes in line for a beer, which is usually more than two innings, an amount of playing time that few true baseball fan would ever give up for a beer run.

Critics—including several passerby fans who were loudly expressing their disdain for the demonstrators at the Giants-Padres game—say the workers should be content with what they have, perhaps assuming the workers were getting more from that $10 beer than they really are.

When Pearlie Jones started working concessions at Giants games 22 years ago, hot dogs were $3. Today they sell for twice that amount at the stand that Jones now manages.

We met Jones at the Local 2 building in the Tenderloin. She lives in Daly City, survives on unemployment during the off-season, and has no other source for health insurance. With nervous laughter, Jones told us she “prays to God during [the off season] that I don’t get sick.”

Wendelburger, who has to commute almost two hours each way to the ball park, works as a bartender during the off-season, although he can only get three days a week. When asked about health insurance during the off-season, this husband and father of two says, “Unless I’m going to die, I’m not going to see a doctor.”

But Jones says that as important as improved wages and healthcare benefits are to her and other employees, they really fear losing their jobs: “Our job security is the main issue that we’re pushing for right now.”

One issue that seems telling of the way Centerplate and the Giants are treating concession workers is on the issue of tips. The workers are currently not allowed a tip jar or a tip line on credit card receipts, a standard feature of food service, particularly here in the Bay Area, where even butchers and bakers have tip jars.

Ramirez says she’s utterly baffled by Centerplate’s stubbornness on the issue. “A tip line is something that doesn’t cost management anything and requires a small change in the computer system and is something the customers are actually demanding. We have a great experience with our fans and customers and they want to share their gratitude and they can’t,” she told us.

Another seemingly minor yet deadlocked issue is the request for benches for in-seat food runners. These workers currently have nowhere to sit for breaks or in between food runs, yet Centerplate has refused to budge on that issue.

When asked about these minor demands, a Centerplate spokesperson said that they have not seen any list of demands from Local 2, a statement disputed by workers and Local 2.

Centerplate has cast workers as greedy, even filing a lawsuit against Local 2 claiming that the union and the workers are trying to exploit the Giants’ World Series championships, an action that the union and its workers heard about from reporters, adding to the aura of mistrust hanging over these negotiations.

 

 

LONG STANDOFF

Both sides have accused the other of not operating in good faith, something they both hope will change when negotiations resume on July 29.

Centerplate says it wants to give the workers a contract, but blames the deadlocked negotiations on Local 2 head Mike Casey, who also serves as the elected president of the San Francisco Labor Council.

“Unfortunately, Local 2 and its leader Mike Casey have not responded to our economic proposal. Our employees, and Local 2 members, remain without a contract, raise, bonus, and health security all because of Casey’s failures,” Centerplate spokesperson Gina Antonini told us.

But the concession workers seem to strongly support Casey, who was on vacation and unavailable for comment. “I have tremendous faith in our Local 2 union leadership. Mike Casey is brilliant,” Patricia Ramirez, a line cook of 14 years, told us. “I think Casey and [Local 2 organizer] Alphonso Pines are leading us in the right way and I think we’re going to win because of their guidance.”

Centerplate seemed unaware of Casey’s local reputation and community support. “The entire labor community is supporting Local 2 and our message is clear: If you have to go to the games, don’t buy the food” San Francisco Labor Council Executive Director Tim Paulson told us.

Local 2’s tough, deliberate, long-term strategy is one that has paid big dividends numerous times in its history, even if it has resulted in long standoffs with management, as was been the case with hotel workers in San Francisco.

“We have seen plenty of times that they have deadlocked for a period of time, they hold out, they tend to fight as long as it takes, and they tend to win” said Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center.

For their part, concession workers involved in the negotiations blame Centerplate lawyer and lead negotiator George Aude and his abrasive style for the impasse and the tense relations. Several workers we talked to cited Aude’s disrespectful demeanor, with one worker calling him a “giant hothead”.

In one of the negotiations, Aude made several irate comments, which Local 2 took as a threat. They say Aude demanded of the Local 2, “If you don’t stop all these actions you’ve been doing, we’ll offer you less money.”

We reached Aude to comment on the contract talks, he said simply “unsatisfied,” and when we asked for further details, Aude hung up and refused to answer our calls.

 

 

SUPPORTING THE TEAM

Mayor Ed Lee says he’s urging the two sides to settle the standoff and that he has offered to help, although he’s leaving it to the mediators involved. So for those keeping score, City Hall has offered help but the Giants organization has not.

Yet Lee’s half-hearted offer to help Giants workers belies his zealous efforts to promote the Giants and its brand. In February, Lee and the Giants launched a citywide anti-litter program called “The Giant Sweep,” named in honor of the Giants’ sweep of the Detroit Tigers in the 2012 World Series.

“Last year the Giants showed us that winning the World Series took a team effort that went far beyond individual heroics. It required the effort of every player, coach, manager, and support staff — not to mention the fans — to build a championship team. The same approach is needed to attack San Francisco’s litter problem. The Giant Sweep will help San Francisco remain a place where people want to live, work and visit,” the Mayor’s Office said in announcing the program.

Mayor Lee and Gavin Newsom awarded the Giants a “Key to the City” for their World Series wins. Pitcher Matt Cain was awarded a “Key” last year for his perfect game against the Houston Astros. Even disgraced slugger Barry Bonds was given a “Key” after passing Hank Aaron on the all time home run list in August 2007.

“You know, we usually give keys to individual dignitaries who have accomplished great things, whether it was the president of Ireland, or Tony Bennett, or even a Matt Cain on his wonderful perfect game in San Francisco,” Lee said during last year’s celebration. “We normally celebrate those individual accomplishments, but today, we’re gonna break with that tradition and present this key to the entire team and coaching staff, everybody involved in the Giants, the investors, their front office. Congratulations to a team that doesn’t know how to quit, never gives up, and defied the odds at every opportunity.”

Then the city spent nearly a reported quarter-million-dollars to throw its team a massive victory parade and San Franciscans went wild in celebrating the Giants, once again, as the concession workers waited to feel like part of the team.

Could Lee or other City Hall figures help solve the standoff? Other mayors have successfully intervened in situations like this before. In 2004, then-Mayor Newsom sided with the 4,300 picketing hotel workers after the hotels refused his request to end a lockout.

Less than a year before that, Newsom ran for mayor as a “business friendly centrist” who raised millions of dollars from the hotel industry and other downtown business interests. But when he saw that hotel management wasn’t being reasonable, he used the power of his office to help broker an agreement.

It would seem Lee could do the same thing if he wanted, particularly given that the Giants are currently asking the city for land and support to help grow its business.

STADIUM SPRAWL

The Giants organization is currently working on a $1.6 billion, 27-acre development project at Pier 48, located on the opposite side of Mission Creek from AT&T Park. The gargantuan project will include 1,000 housing units, 125,000 square feet of retail, 1.7 million square feet of office space, 2,690 garage parking spaces, and more than eight acres of public space. The project is on public land and will be subject to numerous approval processes, by both the city and the Port of San Francisco. Pier 48 and Seawall Lot 337 are some of the last valuable, easily developable sections of waterfront in San Francisco, so one might say the team is asking a lot from the community. And of course, Mayor Lee offered unqualified, enthusiastic support for the project, telling the Chronicle, “Among my highest priorities is to make sure our homegrown companies can stay, grow, and hire right here in San Francisco, driving job growth, improving our neighborhoods, and in this case our world-class waterfront.” But Lee, Centerplate, and the Giants seem to think that just creating jobs is enough, regardless of pay, benefits, and job security. “The success of a Major League Baseball club is measured by more than game-winning rallies and pennant drives. Beyond the box scores, a ballclub has a unique opportunity to create partnerships to improve the quality of life in its community,” the Giants proclaim on its community page. But for Giants workers, such sentiments have done little to improve their quality of life.