Postal workers go postal with picket



A group of local postal workers are hitting the streets this afternoon, Friday, and going postal on their boss who they say won’t stop going postal on them. Okay, that’s not the best way to put it. Local postal carriers say there’s a guy working as a supervisor at the Bryant Annex Post Office in the Mission named Ron Malig who’s simply out of control. This postal boss, they allege, has long abused and discriminated against his underlings, behavior they describe as “obnoxious” from finding ways to punish fellow postal workers he dislikes to claiming certain colleagues are “disrespecting” him.


The highly publicized postal shootings of the ‘90s helped create an unfortunate image of letter carriers. But two union officials from the AFL-CIO’s National Association of Letter Carriers, Golden Gate Branch 214, told us that over the last few decades, their local hasn’t resorted to pickets all that often, maybe a handful of times. Mostly a quiet bunch, says union vice president Bill Thornton, at least compared to the ILWU, which briefly shut down West Coast ports this week on May Day to protest the Iraq war.

“We don’t picket. It has to be a really bad situation,” said Don Limin, a steward for Branch 214.

In fact, the last time Bryant Annex employees did hit the streets was for a vigil in late 2006 when a postal supervisor named Genevieve Paez from the 180 Napoleon St. post office in the Bayview was shot to death execution-style outside of her home in Visitacion Valley. Paez, who Limin said once worked at the Bryant Annex, had been involved in a dispute with another postal employee named Julius Tartt. The next day, Tartt himself was found in a Livermore parking lot dead from what the Alameda County Coroner’s Office declared was a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Police believed Tartt killed Paez and then took his own life.

Historic day


Today’s various May Day celebrations and demonstrations in San Francisco are unique. Never before have we seen the labor, immigrant rights, youth, and anti-war movements joined so closely and seamlessly into a coalition that is demanding a fundamental shift in U.S. foreign and economic policies. The messages from the podiums in Civic Center, Dolores Park, Justin Herman Plaza, and the ILWU Hall sounded surprisingly similar and unifying themes, making common cause of their struggles for a more just world that empowers all people, regardless of the artificial borders that separate them.
ILWU made history by shutting down all West Coast ports over a war. Previously, such tactics would only be employed for labor contracts, while the AFL-CIO and other major unions have never voted to oppose a U.S. war. It probably didn’t make much of a difference in the prosecution of the war, but it does signal a possible turning point and a coalescing of disparate groups around a set of issues that need to be more forcefully embraced by those in power (are you listening, Madame Speaker?) if they want to remain there.
Yes, it was a beautiful day in San Francisco in more ways than one. We’ll have more on what it all means — including color from the events and reporting on the issues — in the days to come and in next week’s paper.

No peace, no work


OPINION Organized labor is set to mark May Day — International Workers’ Day — with what could be the loudest and most forceful demand yet for rapid withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.

Members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) will lead the way by refusing to work their eight-hour morning shifts at ports in California, Oregon, and Washington. For them, it will be a "no peace, no work" holiday — in effect, a strike against the war.

Like many other unions and labor organizations nationwide, the ILWU has long opposed the war in Iraq as an imperialist action in which the lives of young working-class Americans and Iraqi citizens are being needlessly wasted.

The ILWU hopes the dramatic act of shutting down West Coast ports will inspire Americans everywhere to oppose the war.

The coalition behind this movement, US Labor Against the War (USLAW), has been growing steadily since the invasion of Iraq. It’s now the largest organized antiwar group of any kind and is drawing important support, not only from unions but from a wide variety of socially-conscious activist groups outside the labor movement.

USLAW’s members, which represent millions of workers, significantly include the AFL-CIO and most of the federation’s 56 affiliated unions. No one can doubt USLAW’s ability to organize a massive protest like the one ILWU is hoping to lead: it was USLAW that put together the antiwar demonstration that drew half a million marchers to Washington, DC last year.

USLAW is demanding primarily that "our elected leaders stop funding the war, bring our troops home, and start meeting human needs here at home," notes Fred Mason, an AFL-CIO official in Maryland.

In the meantime, says Gerald McEntee, a key public employee union leader, "We are spreading violence in Iraq, not democracy." The Bush administration’s policies, says Musicians Union leader Tom Lee, "make us less secure, increase the threat of terrorism, and have put Iraq on a path of civil war."

ILWU President Robert McEllrath has urged unions and allied groups outside the United States to also mount protests "to honor labor history and express support for the troops by bringing them home safely."

The AFL-CIO’s role is particularly notable. It marks the first time the federation has ever opposed a war, whether the president was a pro-labor Democrat or, as now, an antilabor Republican.

The longshoremen’s union, which was not affiliated with the AFL-CIO at the time, was firmly opposed to the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars. The ILWU also was a major opponent of dictatorial regimes in South and Central America and the apartheid regime in South Africa, its members often refusing to handle cargo coming from or going to those countries. Just recently, ILWU members in Tacoma, Wash., refused for conscientious reasons to load cargo headed for the Iraq war zone.

We can only hope — and hope fervently — that the union’s May Day show of strong opposition to the war in Iraq will help prompt millions of others to conclude that they, too, cannot in good conscience support that seemingly endless war.

Dick Meister

Dick Meister is a San Francisco–based writer who has covered labor and political issues for a half-century as a reporter, editor, and commentator. Contact him through his Web site:

Trans discrimination sparks fight



By Amber Peckham

One of the first waves of protest over the move in Congress to remove transgender people from an anti-discrimination bill came from the labor movement. Members of Pride at Work, an LGBT-focused labor coalition and the newest member of the AFL-CIO, held a press conference Sept 28 to announce they are withdrawing their support from the ENDA bill, and encouraging other LGBT advocacy groups to do the same.

The advocacy is having an impact – already, more than 20 LGBT organizations have come out against the move, and it’s entirely possible that the one-time landmark workplace-discrimination bill will lose almost all of queer community support.

“The need for gender provisions in this bill doesn’t apply only to those who are transgender, but also to, say, effeminate gay men, or lesbians who are ‘too butch’” said Robert Haaland, a representative of Pride at Work. “By picking and choosing who to include in their non-discrimination bill, these legislators are discriminating. It’s self-contradicting.”

“With the transgender community as arguably the most marginalized part of the LGBT community, they are really the ones who need the support of this bill the most,” added Masen Davis, a board member of the Transgender Law Center board. “Over 60% of transgenders in San Francisco are unemployed.”
Davis also expressed gratitude for the support of the labor community.
“If anyone is familiar with the ‘divide and conquer’ tactics being used on the LGBT community right now, it’s the labor movement.” he said. “It really heartens me to hear this voice of support from the labor community, because it means that maybe the bill won’t have to be divided, it can stay one, unified proposition.”

Pride at Work is calling on Pelosi to withdraw her support for the bill if transgender provisions are removed before ENDA is voted on, and is holding a vigil outside her office. If she were to do so, it is likely the bill would not pack the punch required to make it through a Congressional vote, and none of the LGBT community would benefit.

“That’s how the labor movement works; if you injure one, you injure all.” said Haaland. “And it looks like that’s how this bill is going to end up working as well.”

Letters as leverage



It’s a thin, seemingly innocuous letter. The Social Security Administration mails it when names and Social Security numbers don’t match on an employee’s I-9 form. The intent is to make sure workers receive their benefits.

But unions and immigrants have long charged that unscrupulous employers use SSA "no match" letters to harass undocumented workers and squelch union organizing efforts. Now, after a failed immigration debate in Congress, the George W. Bush administration wants to pass a regulation that would explicitly turn the letter into an immigration enforcement tool.

Activists fear this could result in massive firings and retaliation against workers organizing with unions. Employers complain it could lead to an economic slump in industries dependent on undocumented labor. A temporary injunction granted by a San Francisco judge is the only thing holding back letters across the country; it ends Oct. 1.

Bay Area activists have been national leaders at the intersection of immigrant rights and labor movements. They are now shaping national policy on this new regulation in the courts and promise wide-scale street action and workplace walkouts if it goes into effect.

A look at past and present related Bay Area organizing may shed light on the future of the national issue.


US companies file hundreds of millions of W-2 forms with the SSA every year. The SSA uses them to calculate how much it owes workers at retirement. When the name and the Social Security number do not match, the SSA sends a "no match" letter to the employee to clear up the discrepancy. The letters are also sent to employers who have more than 10 employees with no match. These letters have nothing to do with immigration law, and employers are not required to take any adverse action against these employees.

But under the new Department of Homeland Security regulation, no-match letters may be seen as evidence that an employer knowingly employed an undocumented worker. The letters would include a leaflet from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement informing employers that they must fire workers who cannot resolve no matches with the SSA or reverify their work authorization within 93 days. If the companies do not, they may be subject to fines or criminal charges.

The rule was drafted more than a year ago but was not announced by Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff until Aug 10. "The magnet that brings most economic migrants into this country is work," he explained. "And if we have worksite enforcement directed at illegal employment, we strike at that magnet."

Brooke Anderson, an organizer with the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, told the Guardian that this is an unlikely scenario. Workers will not leave the country; they will simply be forced into underground economies, rotate through different jobs, and become even more vulnerable.

Anderson was among a delegation of more than 30 labor, faith, and community leaders that presented a letter Aug. 30 at the regional SSA office in Richmond. The letter outlined their concerns and asked that the SSA send out no-match letters only to employees, not employers.

"DHS is using an incomplete, hodgepodge system intended to ensure our economic security to implement a regressive immigration policy that Bush failed to pass in Congress," Anderson told us. "The SSA as an agency should have a spine and say no to DHS and no to the Bush administration."

If the ICE inserts do go out with no-match letters, she predicts walkouts and massive street actions.

The regulation is also being challenged in a lawsuit filed by the Central Labor Council of Alameda County. The AFL-CIO, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the San Francisco Central Labor Council have joined it. The plaintiffs claim that because the SSA’s database is full of errors, many citizens and legal immigrants could end up losing their jobs. They also argue that the DHS has exceeded its authority by seeking to use the SSA to enforce immigration laws.

US District Judge Maxine Chesney in San Francisco granted a nationwide temporary restraining order Aug. 31, blocking the SSA from sending letters with ICE inserts. The order is in effect until Oct. 1, when another federal judge here, Charles Breyer, will decide whether to grant another injunction.

"DHS is trying to create a huge terror, to give the illusion that they are doing something," Bill Sokol, a lawyer with Weinberg, Roger, and Rosenfeld, the firm representing the Central Labor Council of Alameda County, told us. "Workers are afraid, but we must dial down people’s fear and terror under our new gestapo."

He said the law will have little impact if employers understand it and do not abuse it. If employers overreact, however, the result could be disastrous. Sokol said employers are already firing employees immediately after receiving the letters.


Unions and immigrant workers across the country have charged that no-match letters have been used to stifle workers’ rights since the SSA began sending them to employers in 1994. Activists in the Bay Area have played a key role in resisting these efforts, setting national precedents upholding worker rights.

When a San Francisco Travelodge fired workers after they began organizing with a union in 1999, allegedly due to Social Security no matches, the terminated employees took it to court. The next year they won an arbitrator’s decision that the firing, based solely on no-match letters, was a violation of their union contract.

Local community pressure on the SSA also resulted in the inclusion of cautionary text in the letter. The no-match letter now states that employers "should not use this letter to take any adverse action against an employee…. Doing so could, in fact, violate state or federal law and subject you to legal consequences."

Activists at Oakland’s Labor Immigrant Organizers Network wrote a resolution in 1999 asking the AFL-CIO to renounce its support of the employer-sanctions provisions of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, the federal law that for the first time made it illegal for an undocumented worker to hold a job. Their agitation is credited in part for a resolution the AFL-CIO passed in 2000 calling for the repeal of sanctions and for a legalization program for undocumented workers.

The letters remained a potent tool for antiunion activity. A 2003 survey by the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that 25 percent of workers listed in no-match letters reported that their employers fired them in retaliation for complaining about inadequate worksite conditions. More than one in five workers reported that their employer fired them in retaliation for union activity.

San Francisco opposed the DHS no-match regulation when it was proposed last year. An August 2006 resolution by the Board of Supervisors said it may lead to employers "using it as a device to fire, intimidate, harass, or underpay employees." It promised that the city would defy the regulation if it received a no-match letter for a city employee.

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and the US Chamber of Commerce also came out against the regulation.

But some employers embraced the proposed regulation. Uniform manufacturer Cintas fired hundreds of employees across the country, allegedly responding to the proposed guidelines after receiving no-match letters during a union organizing drive. Organizers said the company targeted employees involved in the union and jumped the gun on new regulations.

The Woodfin Suite Hotel in Emeryville fired 21 housekeepers in December 2006, also allegedly due to no-match letters. The workers claim the Woodfin retaliated against them for organizing with the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, a labor-affiliated think tank, to enforce the living-wage law (see "Calling in the Feds," 6/13/07).

A yearlong campaign targeting the Woodfin has brought the issue to a national audience.


Organizers say the regulations are far less strict than the news media has portrayed them, adding to an atmosphere of hysteria and fear among employers and workers. Francisco Ugarte, a lawyer with the Oakland firm of Leonard Carder, held up several San Francisco Chronicle articles at a Sept. 13 workshop for union organizers as examples of media inaccuracies.

An employer is not required to fire an employee after 90 days, as news accounts have stated. The employer has 90 days to fix discrepancies, and the worker has three days after that to fill out another I-9 form with a new Social Security number. If it appears credible, employers must accept the new I-9, Ugarte said.

The ICE insert in the SSA letter will terrify employers, he predicted, but the rule does not create any new information sharing between the SSA and other governmental agencies. The SSA is actually prohibited by law from sharing private data with any other governmental agencies.

There are also no automatic fines assessed to employers, as news accounts have implied. ICE will only levy fines if it raids employers and finds that they did not address no-match discrepancies. It is unlikely that the DHS will be able to enforce the regulations; in announcing them, Chertoff said the agency would rely largely on self-policing.

Even if this is the case, organizers fear that the DHS’s no-match regulation will provide employers with another tool to squelch immigrant workers’ rights. Comprehensive immigration reform is still needed to reconcile employers’ demands for workers, immigrants’ needs for employment, and US immigration policy.*

Who will SEIU endorse for prez?


Since this is one of the fastest-growing unions in one of the fastest-growing sectors of the workforce — and since it’s president, Andy Stern, is a leader in the rebel group that walked out of the AFL-CIO, this should be a fascinating choice.

Robert Haaland is there, live blogging it.

The business of censoring labor


Most people, of course, work for a living. They spend at least half their lives working and, in fact, define themselves by their jobs. They obviously would be interested in ­ and obviously need ­ expert information on a regular basis about that most important aspect of their lives.

But the news media in effect censor that vital information. Their primary attention is not focused on those who do society¹s work. With the rare exception of such issues as the attempts to raise the minimum wage, or on special occasions like Labor Day, the media generally are not concerned with workers’ daily efforts to make a living. The media concentrate instead on the corporate interests and other employers like themselves who finance, direct and profit from the work.

Workers’ attempts to get a greater share of the profits and better working conditions by using the only effective tool available to them – collective action –­ are given only slight and frequently biased media attention. Strikes are an exception, but that coverage is usually concerned mainly with the strikes’ adverse effect on the general public.

Given their complexity and importance, collective bargaining and union activity generally should be among the most thoroughly and fairly covered of all subjects. Once, most newspapers had labor reporters to provide extensive if not always fair coverage. But almost no papers have such specialists today. With a very few exceptions, radio and television stations have never had them.

At most papers, in the Bay Area and elsewhere, labor coverage has been turned over to the business section. Since the material there is meant for readers who have a particular interest in business and a generally negative view of unions, the stories naturally are slanted that way by business reporters, who have little apparent understanding of labor.

The business pages typically downgrade, distort or simply ignore union views. They show little concern for general readers, including those who support unions or might want to if they had the opportunity to read thorough, balanced and expert accounts of their activities.

How about describing the country¹s major labor federation, the AFL-CIO, as a “trade association?” Or referring to democratically elected union leaders as “bosses?” The San Francisco Chronicle business page has made those petty but illustrative gaffes and, like the rest of the Bay Area¹s mainstream media, far more serious gaffes.

The list of important labor issues that have been ignored ­ censored ­ is seemingly endless. To cite just a few examples, the media:

— Frequently note that union membership is declining while failing to report that a principal cause is failure of the federal government to adequately enforce the laws that supposedly guarantee workers the right to unionize without employer interference.

— Fail to report numerous other anti-union actions of the Bush
administration, including its virtual non-enforcement of most other laws designed to protect workers.

— Rarely take notice of the on-the-job hazards that cause 6,000 deaths and more than 2 million serious injuries a year, and the need to strengthen and adequately enforce the job safety laws.

— Ignore labor¹s role as an advocate for the working people, union and non-union alike, who make up the vast bulk of the population, by characterizing labor as a “special interest.”

— Almost never report the views of union members and leaders on the major issues of the day. The views often are voiced at meetings of local labor councils and other union bodies that reporters ignore, while routinely seeking out the views of corporate and business executives.

— Pay little, if any, attention to many major union campaigns. Most recently, that’s notably included a nationwide drive to get McDonald’s to guarantee decent pay and working conditions to the impoverished tomato pickers whose work is essential to the hugely profitable fast-food industry.

So, despite the great importance of labor, despite most people¹s vested interest in it, despite the need to inform them fully about it, the media provide little that’s of real value to them in their working lives, and much that¹s prejudicial to their collective action.

Copyright © 2006 Dick Meister, former labor editor of the Chronicle and of KQED-TV’s Newsroom. Contact him through his website,

An Unhappy Anniversary for Labor


It was 25 years ago this month that Ronald Reagan struck the blow that sent the American labor movement tumbling into a decline it’s still struggling mightily to reverse.
Reagan, one of the most antilabor presidents in history, set the decline in motion by firing 11,500 of the overworked and underpaid air traffic controllers whose work was essential to the operation of the world’s most complex aviation system.
Reagan fired them because they dared respond to his administration’s refusal to bargain fairly on a new contract by striking in violation of the law prohibiting strikes by federal employees. What’s more, he also destroyed their union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO).
Public and private employers everywhere treated Reagan’s action as a signal to take an uncompromising stand against the unions that they had accepted and bargained with, however reluctantly, as the legitimate representatives of their workers.
At that time, one-fourth of the US workforce was represented by unions. Today, largely because of employer actions since then — often openly illegal actions — the percentage of workers with union bargaining rights is less than half that.
Ironically, PATCO had broken with other AFL-CIO affiliates to endorse Reagan’s successful run for president in 1980. The union did so because Reagan had promised to “take whatever steps are necessary” to improve working conditions and otherwise “bring about a spirit of cooperation between the president and the air traffic controllers.”
Yet PATCO negotiators were rebuffed a year later when they asked for a reduction in working hours, lowering of the retirement age, and other steps to ease the controllers’ extraordinary stress, plus a substantial pay raise and updated equipment.
PATCO had no choice but to abandon its demands or strike to try to enforce them. And when the union struck, Reagan, certain of broad public support because of his great popularity, issued an ultimatum to the strikers: return to work within 48 hours or be fired and replaced permanently by nonunion workers.
Faced with millions of dollars in fines for vioutf8g Reagan’s order and the antistrike injunctions that his administration and airlines had sought and stripped by the administration of its right to represent the controllers, PATCO declared bankruptcy and went out of business.
Although Reagan’s ban on rehiring strikers was later lifted by Bill Clinton and a stronger, new union now represents controllers, safety experts say the air traffic control system remains understaffed and the controllers still under far too much stress.
That’s unlikely to change during the administration of George Bush, who’s as antilabor as was Ronald Reagan. The Bush administration, in fact, has imposed a new contract on the controllers that cuts their pay and pension benefits.
Neither is it likely that other employers will abandon the crippling antilabor practices that were inspired and furthered by Reagan.
Firing and permanently replacing strikers, previously a rare occurrence, has become a common employer tactic. It’s now the strike — an indispensable weapon for workers in collective bargaining — that only rarely occurs.
It isn’t just strikers who face penalties for exercising their legal rights. Employers also have taken to firing or otherwise penalizing workers who seek union recognition, despite the law that promises them the right to freely choose unionization. Many employers have also hired “ management consultants” who specialize in Reagan-style union busting.
“For all practical purposes, Americans have lost the freedom to form unions,” notes AFL-CIO president John Sweeney. “Our labor laws are so weak and so feebly enforced that workers join the union in spite of the law.”
It’s no coincidence that as union ranks have shrunk under the relentless antilabor pressures first applied to air traffic controllers a quarter century ago by Ronald Reagan, the ranks of the American middle class also have shrunk — as has the ordinary American’s share of the country’s wealth. SFBG
Copyright © 2006 Dick Meister, a San Francisco–based writer who has covered labor issues for four decades. Contact him through his Web site,

Poll position


A San Francisco–based political pollster is showing there’s little it won’t do to keep an AFL-CIO affiliate from organizing its phone-bank operators.
The respected Field Research Corporation provides survey data for major newspapers across California, including the San Francisco Chronicle. The company is perhaps best known for its Field Poll, which gauges public opinion on everything from electoral candidates and earthquakes to steroids and immigration. The company also performs taxpayer-subsidized surveys for some local government agencies.
In June the Guardian reported that 80 percent of the company’s 50 or so phone surveyors had signed a petition to join the Communication Workers of America Local 9415, hoping they could negotiate wage increases (they get San Francisco’s minimum right now, $8.62 an hour, with 50 cents extra if they’re bilingual), greater health care opportunities, and general workplace improvements. Some workers told us in June that current conditions promote a high turnover rate.
The company refused to recognize their petition, however, so now the National Labor Relations Board will oversee an election scheduled for July 20. Since our last story [“Questioning Their Bosses,” 6/7/2006], Field Research has instituted an aggressive campaign to discourage workers from joining the CWA by distributing inflammatory memos that suggest the union would work against their interests and not do much more than collect dues.
“Unfortunately, [the tactics are] par for the course for corporations these days,” said Yonah Camacho Diamond, an organizer for Local 9415. “However, the one surprising thing with Field Research is they have public projects. They’re seen as having a lot of integrity, but these are Wal-Mart tactics. We’ve got solid supporters, but this stuff is taking its toll on the workers. It’s coming at them daily.”
A memo to employees sent out by chief financial officer Nancy Rogers invites them to attend a paid “session” in which they’ll be given “factual answers to your questions” about union representation. The sessions for the most part appear to demonize the CWA and warn in grave terms what could happen to the workers’ pay if they go on strike. One handout suggests their hourly wage could drop more than three dollars to the federal minimum of $5.15, based on a strange interpretation of the city’s minimum-wage ordinance. Another handout features a table that purports to show how little any wage increase resulting from a strike would benefit them.
“This chart shows the length of time needed for you to make up losses (assuming you were not permanently replaced) during a strike if the union calls for one and then later gets you a 50 cent per hour increase,” the page reads. “We hope this would not happen here, and we would bargain in good faith, but you never know.”
Using Local 9415’s own annual financial reports, the handout goes on to imply that the CWA spends union dues enriching its own staff administrators. The union told us that, in fact, some 80 percent of 9415’s income goes to representing its members. The local’s president earned $57,000 last year.
Another memo sent to employees by Rogers in May threatens, “Many of you think that by getting a union, your wages, hours, and working conditions will automatically change. This is simply not the case.” She writes that the company would not enter into agreements that could “eliminate the jobs of many of our part-time employees,” despite concerns expressed by at least one employee about the quality of survey data produced by temp workers. The employee, Daniel Butler, claimed to us in June that he was suspended for three days as a result of his complaints.
On July 11, Sup. Chris Daly proposed a resolution condemning Field Research’s “unethical actions to intimidate employees” and the company’s “antiunion ‘captive audience’ meetings.”
“Field Research Corporation has revenues in the millions of dollars, only pays pennies above the minimum wage required by San Francisco law, and doesn’t offer health care to the overwhelming majority of their employees,” the resolution reads. The full board was scheduled to consider the resolution July 18, after our deadline.
CFO Rogers and Field Research site manager George Nolan did not return calls seeking comment.
One phone-bank operator, Oriana Saportas, who commutes from the East Bay for 22 hours of work each week, admitted she believed some of the workers who originally signed the petition had been persuaded to vote against Local 9415 by Field Research’s antiunion campaign. She said that during the information sessions the employees were divided into four groups, including one group containing those who seemed to be most in support of the union. She says now she’s not entirely sure which way the election will go.
“I asked [Field Research] how we could have a voice without a union…. They didn’t really give me a straight answer,” Saportas said. “Not every institution is perfect. Not even the union. I know that. But we need a voice.” SFBG

Workers nights


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 for a complete schedule.

Questioning their bosses


Telephone interviewers for the influential San Franciscobased Field Research Corp. are trying to unionize but are getting resistance from the company. They have filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board asking that the federal agency oversee their election for membership in an AFL-CIO affiliate.

About 40 of the employees out of 50 have so far signed up to join Communication Workers of America Local 9415, hoping to secure increased hourly wages (they currently start at San Francisco’s minimum hourly wage of $8.62, earning 50¢ or so more if they’re bilingual), a health care package, and other improvements that will stem what they say is a chronically high turnover rate.

Field Research is one of the most respected political pollsters in the state. Major newspapers across California, including the San Francisco Chronicle, regularly rely on the company’s Field Poll to gauge public opinion on everything from electoral candidates and earthquakes to steroids and immigration. The company also performs taxpayer-subsidized surveys for some county health departments.

But Field Research’s employees say they’re not being paid nearly enough to cold-call strangers at supper time to ask them if they support queer marriage rights or whether they think Barry Bonds should be penalized for doping. The workers claim the company offers no holiday or sick pay and requires them to average 37.5-hour weeks for six months before becoming eligible for health care benefits. Their schedules never permit them to meet the average, they say, and predictably, just a handful of workers have the benefits. And raises, they contend, are mere pennies.

When a delegation of the interviewers arrived at Field Research’s Sutter Street corporate offices on May 30 to request recognition of the union, they say, CFO Nancy Rogers refused to speak with them and threatened to call the police. Their only legal option then was the NLRB, which will first direct Field Research and the workers to determine who is eligible to vote on union membership and then set an election date.

"We wanted to say, ‘Look, you’re a San Francisco institution,’” said Yonah Camacho Diamond, an organizer for Local 9415. “‘You pride yourself on integrity. Will you voluntarily recognize?’ They threw us out of the building."

Daniel Butler began working for Field Research in October 2003, he told the Guardian during a small press conference at City Hall June 2. He was soon promoted to a quality monitoring position. But, he says, after he expressed his concerns to management about the quality of survey information gathered by temp workers the company had hired, he was suspended for three days and his position was eliminated. He says he was told that his complaints were "unprofessional."

"The message they were sending was, rather than make an effort to improve quality or encourage better work through higher wages, let’s just get rid of the position that monitors quality altogether," said Butler, who eventually sought Local 9415’s help in March.

Rogers sent a memo to the staff May 31 stating that the workers had a right to a union election, while also issuing a warning that could portend rocky relations between management and workers at the company.

"Many of you think that by getting a union, your wages, hours and working conditions will automatically change," the letter reads. "That is simply not the case. If the union gets in, the company will bargain in good faith, but it will not enter into agreements that are either not in its best business interests or that could eliminate the jobs of many of our part-time employees."

Rogers, for the most part, declined to comment for the Guardian when we reached her by telephone, citing the NLRB’s ongoing procedures.

"All I can really say is this is now before the National Labor Relations Board," she said. "We want to make sure this is fair and equitable and follow due process."

Tim Paulson, executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council, told the workers at the June 2 press conference that they were within their rights to pursue unionization.

"This is a union town," he said. "One of the goals we have is that people should have a voice at work." SFBG