Why Ballpark Workers Might Strike Out

The chasm between rich and poor in America continues to widen as people who actually work for a living struggle and those who shift around money do very well, thanks. That reality is underscored by a labor dispute between San Francisco ballpark workers and the management, Michael Winship reports.

By Michael Winship

It was in The San Francisco Examiner on June 3, 1888, 125 years ago this month, that there first appeared a poem titled, “Casey at the Bat, a Ballad of the Republic.” In the decades since, “Casey” has become the classic ode to baseball as the all-American pastime; its stanzas once memorized by school kids, its lines recited and recorded by everyone from James Earl Jones to Garrison Keillor.

So poignant and evocative is its tale that Albert Goodwill Spalding, 19th century professional pitcher, team owner, and co-founder of the sporting goods company that still bears his name, wrote, “Love has its sonnets galore. War has its epics in heroic verse. Tragedy its somber story in measured lines. Baseball has ‘Casey at the Bat.’”

San Francisco Giants’ cap insignia.

The melancholy account of the vainglorious power hitter Casey stepping to the plate, his Mudville team down 4-2 at the bottom of the ninth with two men on base and two outs, epitomizes baseball as the game that will break your heart, especially in its immortal final lines:

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville, mighty Casey has struck out.

The poem was written by Ernest Thayer, a college friend of media magnate William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day who owned the Examiner and the man on whom Orson Welles based Citizen Kane. Thayer used the pen name “Phin,” and was paid five dollars for his masterpiece, or around $125 at today’s prices.

I know of some baseball employees who can relate to that kind of bargain basement salary, and they’re in San Francisco, too. They’re not the A-Rods, Riveras and Pujols who pull down ten million and more. The people I mean are the 800 concession workers who sell hot dogs and beer, serve and clean the restaurants, and cater to the luxury skyboxes at AT&T Park, home of the championship San Francisco Giants. Employed by a South Carolina-based company called Centerplate, their jobs only last the six months of the season and they make but $11,000 a year, right at the poverty line for a single individual in the United States. Their situation is yet another flagrant example of the vast and widening gap created by income inequality in America.

As Dave Zirin at The Nation magazine recently wrote:

“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 a cup of beer has climbed to $10.25. This also despite the fact that, as packed sellouts become the norm, the stress and toil of the job has never been greater.”

Job security, health care and pensions are issues as well. ThinkProgress reports:

“Under the current plan, a worker who staffs 10 events in a month receives health care for the next month, but Centerplate wants to increase that to 12 events per month under a new contract, workers said (A Centerplate spokesperson would not confirm that detail). That would make it impossible to obtain health coverage in months like June, when the Giants have just nine home games, and making health care harder to obtain is a major sticking point for the workers.”

The workers are represented by UNITE HERE Local 2 and on May 11, 97 percent of them voted to authorize a strike. (This does not necessarily mean there will be a strike, but union leaders now have the go-ahead to call one if they think it’s needed.)

A one-day walkout was staged at a Giants/Rockies game during the Memorial Day weekend, an action histrionically described by Centerplate spokesperson Sam Singer as a “slap in the face of our nation’s military.” He told George Lavender of the progressive magazine In These Times, “Local 2 has insulted the servicemen and servicewomen and veterans.”

There were long lines at the concession stands. Centerplate bussed in replacement workers for the day, including, In These Times reported, volunteers from non-profit organizations who worked for free in exchange for donations. This is common practice at sports venues to raise money for churches and other charities, but in San Francisco, it undermines the workers’ dispute.

The president of Local 2, who just happens to be named Casey, said, “It’s a real scam. They [Centerplate] make huge savings. They don’t have to do any of the contractual requirements that they have to do for a worker.”

The Giants management is quick to claim that they have no skin in the game, that the workers are paid not by them but by Centerplate. But as Dave Zirin and others point out, 55 cents of every dollar spent by fans at the concessions in the stadium goes into the Giants’ pockets.

“Centerplate says talk to the Giants,” one of the workers told Zirin. “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’re saying is, we want a fair share.”

The team could easily step up to the plate if it wanted to. The Giants’ principal owner is Charles B. Johnson, 80, the multibillionaire chair of the Franklin Resources mutual fund, founded by his father in 1947. He and his wife Ann live in the Carolands Chateau, a 65,000-square-foot mansion built by the daughter of railway industrialist George Pullman, who notoriously used Federal troops to suppress workers during the Pullman strike of 1894. The Johnsons bought the 98-room property for several million and reportedly spent more than $20 million in its restoration.

The architecture was inspired by a 17th century French design, which in turn was a prototype for Versailles. Republican fundraisers have been held at Carolands, including one for Mitt Romney in May 2012, and Charles Johnson has been a generous contributor to the party and its candidates, including, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, a $200,000 donation last year to Karl Rove’s American Crossroads super PAC, as well as $50,000 to the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future.

For that same $200,000, you can rent Johnson’s AT&T Park stadium for a day. Recently, millionaire hedge fund manager Mike Wilkins did just that, inviting 100 of his nearest and dearest hedge fund pals to come to the empty ballpark (the Giants were on the road), have a drink at a bar moved out to the playing field, run the bases, and take batting practice with a bullpen pitcher (which costs an additional $5, 000 per person and includes “a paramedic standing by”).

They were living the dream, “grown up boys fantasy time,” a source told BuzzFeed. Meanwhile, the men and women who barely scrape by are feeding the fantasy, making and selling hamburgers and fries, peanuts and Cracker Jack, and cleaning up the mess after. If they don’t win, it’s a shame.

Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at the public policy and analysis group Demos, is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program, “Moyers & Company,” airing on public television. Check local airtimes or comment at www.BillMoyers.com

2 comments for “Why Ballpark Workers Might Strike Out

  1. Mats Larsson
    June 12, 2013 at 14:59

    Why do people keep going to these lavish public spectacles? Constantly bombarded from every which way by advertising of so much junk: food and trinkets; propaganda in the form of jingoist celebrations of american corporate wars; awful bloody music (the same for Las Vegas). Everyone ought to go on strike from this shit society, shit government by business proxy, and shit culture (it is all collapsing and imploding anyway).

  2. bobzz
    June 12, 2013 at 08:23

    On “the big squeeze,” one cannot help but notice the rise in the stock market and the sequester. Coincidence or has that sequester money found its way into Wall Street? I do not know but would like to.

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