Hardball: Giants concession workers fight for the soul of San Francisco

by Dave Zirin

Picture AT&T Park, home of the World Series champion San Francisco Giants. Picture about as breathtaking a baseball stadium as exists in the United States with McCovey Cove and the San Francisco Bay framing the outfield like a Norman Rockwell postcard as conceived by Leroy Neiman. Picture seats packed with people clad in their iconic orange and black reveling in the once hard-luck team that now defines the city and stands atop the game. What we don’t picture when we conjure images of this or any ballpark are the people actually doing the work to keep it all running.

Giants_ballpark_SFAs idyllic as the aesthetics of the park remain, those prepping the food and cleaning the toilets make $11,000 a year in a city where, due to yet another round of tech-bubble gentrification, they cannot afford to live. Concession workers at the park earn their $11,000 in a city where a one bedroom apartment runs $3,000 a month and people are spending near that much to live in laundry rooms and unventilated basements.

These same workers, who commute as much as two hours each way to get to the park, have now gone three years without a pay increase. This despite the fact that the value of the team according to Forbes has increased 40 percent, ticket prices have spiked and the cost of beer has climbed to $10.25 a cup. This also despite the fact that, as packed sellouts become the norm, the stress and toil of the job has never been greater. Now, the 800 concession workers, represented by UNITE HERE Local 2, have voted 97 percent to strike.

Team management, which subcontracted food services to a South Carolina outfit called Centerplate, claims no responsibility for the labor troubles even though they receive 55 percent of every dollar spent by the Giants fans. I spoke with Billie Feliciano who has been working at the park for over three decades. She said to me: “This is the first time in 35 years we’ve had to go to these extremes. Centerplate says talk to the Giants. The Giants say talk to Centerplate. If we stepped back for five minutes they’d figure it out after they started to lose all that money. All we are saying is we want a fair share.”

Getting their “fair share” from Giants owner, 80-year-old multi-billionaire Charles Johnson, will not be easy. A child of Wall Street wealth whose fortune has grown exponentially with the expansion of the financial markets, he now heads the mutual fund Franklin Templeton started by his father. As he said to the San Francisco Chronicle, quoting the company’s namesake Ben Franklin, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” (It would be far more fitting, if he quoted the Ben Franklin who said of money, “The more one has, the more one wants.”)

Team management, which subcontracted food services to a South Carolina outfit called Centerplate, claims no responsibility for the labor troubles even though they receive 55 percent of every dollar spent by the Giants fans.

In a startling bit of symmetry, Johnson lives in the city’s Carolands Chateau, a 100 room, 65,000 square foot palace originally built a century ago for the daughter of railroad magnate George Pullman. That would be George Pullman, namesake of the bloody 1894 Pullman Railway Strike where the United States Army intervened to crush the nascent industrial workers organization known as the American Railway Union. Then, destroying the mere idea of an industrial union like the ARU was seen as a high priority.

Today we are seeing service industry workers starting to organize, walk out and be heard and a 21st century Pullman is looking to halt the mere idea that the expansion of service unions will happen on his watch. This is why the struggle at AT&T Park is bigger than 800 concession workers and why everyone has a stake in offering solidarity and support.

Now, the 800 concession workers, represented by UNITE HERE Local 2, have voted 97 percent to strike.

As legendary Bay Area KPFA Hardknock Radio host Davey D said, “There is a lot of talk about having a citywide fast food union in San Francisco. So if you can topple the union at AT&T Park, then you can topple that idea. And if you can topple (service) unions there, you can topple them anywhere and can stop that tide around the country.”

The workers are ready. Ms. Feliciano said to me: “We come there rain or shine. Are we striking? Not yet. But these workers are ready to strike.” The community, the Major League Players Association, and the players on the Giants from Buster Posey to Tim Lincecum to Sergio Romo should support them as well.

As for the negotiations, they display all the arrogance of both Centerplate and Charles Johnson. During one session, while management scolded the union for thinking they were worth more than $11,000 a year, hedge fund honcho Mike Wilkins, a partner at $400 million Kingsford Capital Management, was on the field running the bases with 100 of his buddies, at a one day rental cost of $500,000. This was described to the website Buzzfeed as an exercise in “grown up boys’ fantasy time.” Will San Francisco ever again be anything but a playground for the overgrown millionaire children of the tech sector? That’s the question. We’ll find out the answer in the weeks to come.

Go to thegiantzero.org for updates on the struggle.

Dave Zirin is the author of several books, including “The John Carlos Story“ (Haymarket), and writes a weekly column for The Nation magazine, where this column first appeared. Receive his column every week by emailing dave@edgeofsports.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.

News flash: Centerplate sues Local 2, prepares for strike

In a press release issued Tuesday evening, May 21, Giants spokesman Sam Singer writes: “The concessionaire at AT&T Park today filed a dynamic lawsuit against Local 2 Unite Here union for violations of national labor laws …

“Centerplate said Local 2 is attempting to illegally force the San Francisco Giants into signing a ‘successor addendum’ that would bind the baseball team and any future concessionaire at AT&T Park to the same terms Local 2 negotiates with Centerplate. This action is illegal under the federal labor laws, Centerplate officials said.

“Normally, the legal charges Centerplate made today are filed with the National Labor Relations Board, but Centerplate said immediate action is necessary by the legal system to protect the Giants, Centerplate and nonprofits from Local 2’s illegal activities, which could harm all the parties. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco and seeks damages and declaratory relief.”

Claiming “Centerplate’s employees are already the highest paid workers in the concession industry,” Singer concludes that in the event of a strike, operations “will not be disrupted as the company has contingency plans in place.”