Oracle Park concession workers a reminder that striking works

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The strike is the most powerful tool in a union’s toolbox. I could say something sappier like solidarity is the most powerful tool, and that’s true, but what you do with that solidarity matters, and the most effective and impactful thing a union can do with their solidarity is go on strike and win what is theirs from the bosses that are attempting to keep it from them.

Right behind the strike, and nearly as powerful, is the threat of a strike. If management believes that there is legitimacy behind a potential strike, that the union is going to hold fast and together and wait out management in a way that will harm the latter’s bottom line, then they are more likely to negotiate, to give in, to agree to give the union what they want. The actions of UNITE HERE Local 2 are a good reminder of this: the concession workers of the San Francisco Giants’ Oracle Park overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike just a few weeks ago, and now, on Thursday, they will vote on a new contract that contains the wins extracted from Bon Appetit, and which would avert a strike occurring during the Giants’ upcoming postseason run.

From the press release sent out by UNITE HERE Local 2 early on Wednesday morning:

“In my 32 years working food service at Giants games, I’ve been witness to so much history – World Series championships, Barry Bonds’ home runs, and more – and now we’ve made history too,” said Deborah Torrano, a suite attendant at Oracle Park and UNITE HERE Local 2 negotiating committee member. “This deal will help us be safer on the job, support our families in the Bay Area, get medical care without worrying about the bill, and retire with dignity. We were ready to strike, and now our lives will change.”

Local 2’s list of demands was significant, but also absolutely warranted. They wanted retroactive hazard pay, a lowering of the threshold to secure health insurance qualifications thanks to the more limited schedule of the pandemic, and improved COVID-19 safety protocols that would actually be enforced: the previous unenforced conditions were what made working during the pandemic hazardous for these concessionsers to begin with. They got what they wanted by authorizing a strike that was certainly going to impact the Giants during the postseason, were it to occur. A few weeks of negotiation after the authorization — negotiations that basically were not even happening until the strike was authorized in the first place — brought them a series of gains:

The workers will receive a hazard pay bonus of $1.50 per hour for games worked during both the 2020 and 2021 season, and an immediate wage increase of $3 per hour, with an increase up to $7 per hour by 2024. The eligibility threshold for health insurance was lowered, meaning, the workers will all actually be able to have health insurance even with the reduced schedule, and the actual quality of the health care plan available was improved, too, with no cost to the individuals, and a low cost to add an unlimited number of dependents. The pension was improved for both full-time and seasonal workers — you love to see a union not separating its workers into tiers — and a commitment was made by Bon Appetit to enforce the mask requirements and COVID safety rules.

The workers are still hoping for more on the pandemic front, as they are “calling on the Giants and the City of San Francisco to follow L.A. County’s lead and require fans to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative test to enter the ballpark.” But at least they were able to get acknowledgement from management that Oracle Park was not doing its best to protect its workers, which was not something that they were admitting to prior to the authorization of a strike.

This story is obviously about the concession workers of UNITE HERE Local 2 at Oracle Park, but there is a general lesson here for all unions, and the one to be singled out, given the sport we’re discussing, is the one in MLB. The Players Association, for too long, focused on labor peace over making additional gains and protecting the ones they had already made, and it’s how they found themselves backed against a wall in the latter half of the last decade. That seems to be changing now — seeing the PA stand up for itself last spring in the negotiations that led to the shortened 2020 season was no small thing — but the union will never have the strength it used to unless MLB’s owners truly believe the players are willing to stick out a work stoppage.

Striking isn’t really an option for the Players Association, given the offseason timing of the expiration of MLB’s collective bargaining agreement and the start of the new season, but holding out for what you want and believe in during a lockout is just as important as doing so during a strike. The MLBPA’s members and leadership would do well to recognize that UNITE HERE Local 2 got what they wanted, without even having to actually strike, because UNITE HERE’s reputation is such that Bon Appetit and the Giants knew their threats were not idle, and that they absolutely would strike at the most inopportune time for management. The MLBPA needs to get back that energy that they had under Marvin Miller and the early years of Don Fehr, and Tony Clark refusing to take shit from MLB last spring is certainly a start.

We’ll likely see soon enough if they have the strength of their convictions that the members of UNITE HERE Local 2 do, though, because that’s what it will take to get what is theirs from MLB’s owners, just like that’s what it took to get Bon Appetit and the Giants to concede.

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