Patricia Ramirez has been working concessions for the reigning world champions of baseball, the San Francisco Giants, for 13 years. She takes a bus 30 minutes from her home in Oakland and then walks five blocks to AT&T park, where she works as a culinary aid in the fourth-floor kitchen. She says her favorite part of the job is, “when I am able to give [the fans] an amazing experience. Giving them good service, great hospitality because they give it back.”
While she is able to work almost year-round at the park, she says she is “the exception, one of the few.” Most concession workers are seasonal and while their hourly wages may be some of the highest in the country, the average pay is $11,000 a year, below the poverty line. Many of the concession workers live in low-income housing, they can travel up to two hours each direction in order to work an event, and they have multiple jobs to supplement their income. Their job with the Giants, though, gives them the healthcare insurance they otherwise would not have.
But now, in the middle of long-running and tense negotiations with their direct employer, Centerplate, a South Carolina-based company that is subcontracted by the Giants to do concessions in the park, 500 of the 750 to 800 concession workers at AT&T park voted on May 11 to go on strike if necessary (the vote passed with 97 percent approval, as 516 people were present for it). And on Saturday, May 25, they did just that, launching a one-day strike.
These bartenders, concession stand staffers, janitors and cooks have not had a raise since April 1, 2009, and their last contract with Centerplate expired on March 1, 2010. They also claim that Centerplate wants to make it harder to qualify for healthcare insurance, a part of their benefits that many workers rely on. According to Ramirez, one of her colleagues drives the two hours each way to AT&T Park because “he has no insurance other than this for his family. It’s really important that we keep that, that we keep our benefits.”
Since March 1, 2010, the San Francisco Giants have won the World Series twice, including last year. As of Tuesday, the Giants have sold out 190 consecutive games. They have also had 1,040,301 paid spectators this season alone, the average ticket costing $28. Forbes estimates that the team is worth $786 million, which is nearly double the amount it was valued at in 2009 ($471 million). Revenue at the stadium has also increased during that period from $196 million to $262 million. The expenses for players have risen from $103 million in 2009 to $148 million this year. Centerplate has also gotten bigger in the last few years. In 2007, its annual sales were close to $741 million. By 2012, that number was up to $850 million.
Very recently, the negotiation process between the union that represents the concession workers, Unite Here Local 2, and Centerplate escalated. The Giants, despite hiring Centerplate and having a contract with the company, say they have no role in the negotiations and they remain steadfastly an outside spectator.
But, make no mistake, the Giants are at the center of the dispute.
First, it is not hard to draw the direct line between the Giants and the concession workers. As Local 2’s spokesperson, Nischit Hegde, says, “When you look at the situation at hand, you have the Giants. They have their team and they have their ballpark. They need to hire someone to do the food. That company is Centerplate. Centerplate then hires other people to take care of, cater to the Giants’ fans.” For Nischit and the concession workers there is no doubt that the Giants are part of this. “To say that there is no involvement is very myopic, and a little confusing, and mostly laughable.”
Financially, the Giants are also invested in both Centerplate and the concession workers. Ramirez explains it this way:
For instance, the $10 sandwich. $5.50 of that sandwich goes into Giants’ pockets. What is left, $4.50, that goes to Centerplate. And Centerplate has to take care of all of the expenses, employees, deliveries, everything that embodies a ballpark. So, how can the San Franscico Giants they have nothing to do with this dispute that is between Centerplate and the union. If that was the case, why are they taking $5.50 right off the top? If they want to be fair, they can take $5 and give Centerplate $5. That $.50 would go a long way. That would go to our wages. That would go to our benefits. And one of the most important things we want is job security.
Hegde says that the Giants taking 55 percent of Centerplate’s sales was a fact revealed by Centerplate at the bargaining table. Sam Singer, who is president of the public relations firm in San Francisco that Centerplate has hired, says, “not only is that not true, that is not part of the negotiations.”
The other way that the Giants matter is with the final point Ramirez brought up: job security for the concession employees. According to Hegde, the union offered new language to Centerplate about job security earlier this month. The workers are asking for Centerplate to secure a successorship clause from the Giants; in short, this would mean that if Centerplate went under or the Giants fired them, the workers’ agreements with Centerplate would remain intact and they would not be out of jobs. Singer says that this particular issue is illegal on the part of Local 2: “By federal law, you can’t have a secondary boycott or draw somebody else into a labor dispute that’s not part of that collective bargaining agreement. The Giants are not part of the agreement.” Last Tuesday night, Centerplate filed a lawsuit in federal district court against Local 2 claiming exactly that.
Singer says that Centerplate chose to go into court instead of through the National Labor Review Board (NLRB) because it believes the former would lead to a speedier resolution. He also says that this lawsuit is a direct result of what he claims was Local 2 walking away from the bargaining table two weeks ago. “There’s consequences for bad faith negotiations,” he explains.
Hegde says that, in fact, it is Centerplate that is not treating its workers with the respect they deserve and that Local 2 has not actually left the bargaining table. When the two sides met two Thursdays ago to discuss the language about job security that the union had given Centerplate the day before, Hegde says that Centerplate made 50 concession workers from the union wait two and half hours. “They finally came into the room. The union asked about the job security language, had they worked on it. And they hadn’t. And they responded with, ‘This proposal is obnoxious,’” Hegde says.
Ramirez adds, “Instead of coming with a counter proposal or basically treating us with respect, they said our proposal was obnoxious. That made us angry.” For Hegde, this shows that Centerplate is “not paying attention to their workers. When you have 500 workers to 16 saying, ‘We’re authorizing a strike,’ and then you come back and you don’t address their most prominent issue, that is not negotiation. That’s a circus. That’s theater.” Singer denies this version of events, calling Centerplate “a professional organization” that “shows up on time, treats everybody with respect, and it is their desire to get a contract.”
The lawsuit, though, raises questions. One aspect of it says that by focusing the media’s attention not just on Centerplate but also on the Giants, Local 2 is threatening and coercing the Giants because “Local 2 likely believes the Giants, one of the most successful sports franchises in the country, are a more compelling target for its claims of unfair treatment.” In fact, it specifically says that “Local 2 likely believes that enmeshing the reigning World Series champs in a labor dispute will make more compelling headlines than one between a concessionaire [Centerplate] and a union that represents hot dog vendors and bartenders.” They allege that by trying to secure a successorship clause from the Giants as part of their collective bargaining agreement with Centerplate, the workers are “seeking to exploit the Giants’ successes as repeated World Series Champions and the financial success that flows from having a winning team.”
The lawsuit centers the Giants in a way that directly contradicts Centerplate’s own claim that they do not want to involve the team in these discussions. “The bottom line is this is a negotiation between Centerplate and Local 2 and involved no one else,” Singer says. Yet, when you read the lawsuit, the word “Giants” appears 10 times on the first page alone. And not only did Centerplate file the lawsuit but it released a statement to the media that summarizes it. That statement appeared in a range of outlets, including some that are national. Hegde claims that Centerplate released the statement to the media before actually serving papers to the Local 2 defendants in order to draw media attention to it. According to Hegde, this lawsuit is a “distraction, an action to change the subject.” Singer denies this.
The work the lawsuit’s language is doing is positioning the Giants as a threatened entity, portrayed in the suit as a benevolent organization that just plays baseball really well and so is financially successful because of that. The union, on the other hand, is dismissively referred to as a collection of mere “hot dog vendors and bartenders,” a group hoping to unfairly exploit the pride of San Francisco. Centerplate appears to be tapping into one of our favorite cultural narratives: that sports and politics do not overlap and that to bring them together in any way diminishes the purity of sport, the teams and players involved, and fans who root for them. This is countered directly by the pleas of workers like Ramirez who says, “We don’t want to live in a castle. We don’t want to be [San Francisco’s wealthy owner] Charles Johnson. We just want to live in dignity.” She says that “the San Francisco Giants need to support their workers.”
The Giants are keeping quiet. Staci Slaughter, the senior vice president of communications and senior adviser to the CEO of the Giants, said that the team does not disclose what is in the contract with Centerplate, whose services they have been using since before they moved from Candlestick Park to AT&T Park in 2000. But she did say that she does not think that the 55 percent number that has been floated in the media as the percentage of sales that the Giants take from Centerplate is accurate. When asked if the Giants would consider taking a smaller percentage of sales in order to relieve the tensions between Centerplate and concession workers, Slaughter closed up and said that she cannot comment on the negotiations between the two sides since the Giants are not an active part of this current dispute. She also stated that the Giants are encouraging both sides to reach a deal. Last Wednesday, following news of the lawsuit, Slaughter repeated what she had said earlier: that despite their centrality in the lawsuit, the Giants are not involved and they hope that both sides will come to an agreement.
As for the lawsuit, Hegde says that the union would like Centerplate to stop focusing on a “distraction” and instead pay attention to “how unhappy their workers must be to authorize a strike vote by 97 percent.” She would like to return to the table. “When [Centerplate] could be negotiating with us and talking to their workers, they choose to talk to the media and talk to their attorneys," she says, "which is problematic but really speaks to how they are not respectful and they’re not listening to their workers.” Singer says that “Centerplate remains at the table and is willing to negotiate with Local 2 to get a new contract. We want a new contract. We value our employees at AT&T Park and we want to make sure we provide the best service to the fans at Giants game.” They are hopeful that “Local 2 returns and negotiates a new contract.”
The Giants, of course, continue to claim that they have never been at the table and do not plan to join. Patricia Ramirez counters this, though, and pleads with the Giants: “They have to hear, to open their ears and hear us.” Speaking directly to both Centerplate and the Giants, Ramirez implores, “listen to us, listen to your workers. They need to treat us like the world championship workers that we are.”