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"Between THE ROCK and a Hard Place!"

Beyond Chron
October 10, 2006

Copyright © 2006 Marc Norton

The San Francisco labor movement won a solid victory over the hotel bosses less than a month ago. But whether or not this is still a "union town" is a question being asked out on the piers and docks where our city's labor movement first got its real legs in the titanic struggles of the 1930s.

Two weeks ago, on September 25, the notorious non-union Hornblower company took over the ferries that carry thousands of tourists to Alcatraz every day. Hornblower was awarded the lucrative ferry contract by Bush-appointed political operatives in the "Interior Department," operating through their subsidiary, the "National Park Service."

For thirty years, ever since Alcatraz became a tourist destination, Alcatraz ferry workers have been members of the Inlandboatmen's Union (IBU) and the International Masters' Mates and Pilots (MMP). The IBU is the marine division of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).


Let's get clear what's going on. Handing the Alcatraz ferry contract to the non-union Hornblower is an up-front attempt at union-busting by Bush's cronies. It is a deliberate slap in the face to the San Francisco labor movement, and a challenge that must be met square-on.

Ironically, Hornblower opened its non-union operation just three days after UNITE HERE Local 2 hotel workers ratified their victory with the Multi-Employer Group (MEG) hotels. But upwards of 5,000 hotel workers, including this writer, remain without union contracts. If Hornblower continues to defy the San Francisco labor movement, it will only embolden the hotel bosses who want to negotiate some kind of sub-standard deal.

You can bet your bottom dollar that the hotel corporatocracy is keenly watching what is going on just steps away from their hotels. After all, Hornblower, by virtue of their multi-million dollar Alcatraz deal, is now a major player in the San Francisco tourist industry. The old saw that "an injury to one is an injury to all" was never more apt.

The challenge to the labor movement by Hornblower is not limited to San Francisco. According to the Transport Workers Solidarity Committee, "the Hornblower empire is vast and growing rapidly. They have a non-union ferry operation in San Diego... [and are] planning a 'Super-Ferry' inter-island service in Hawaii carrying passengers and cargo." Hornblower operates cruise ships in Berkeley, Marina Del Rey and Newport Beach. The company also runs ferries in the Bahamas, Florida, Alabama, and on both Lake Michigan and Lake Ontario. Terry MacRae, the owner of Hornblower, is reputed to be wired into both the George Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger administrations. Significantly, Hornblower has a contract to run ferry services for US Marines on Okinawa, Japan.


On Sunday, October 8, there was a spirited demonstration and picket line in front of Hornblower's operation at Pier 33. Around 200 workers chanted, distributed flyers, raised hell and turned away a number of tourists. My favorite chant was "Your Vacation, Our Jobs!" The ILWU drill team made an appearance. But a group of San Francisco's finest, decked out in blue uniforms and blue steel, kept the pickets from doing what they really wanted to do -- block the gate to Hornblower's dock and shut the damn operation down.

At one point during the demo, the guys in blue let a small group of union folks go through Hornblower's gate, by pre-arrangement. They then proceeded to block the ramp to the Alcatraz boat for a few minutes until they were politely arrested, also by pre-arrangement. During this brief episode, one of the speakers on the picket line called for more workers to join those blocking the ramp. The police sergeant on the scene immediately rushed up to the speaker shouting, "That wasn't our agreement!" That seemed to be the end of that. Those arrested probably won't be doing hard time.

Rumor has it that the leaders of the San Francisco Labor Council are relying on Nancy Pelosi and Gavin Newsom to convince Hornblower to strike a deal. Maybe that's why so few "labor leaders" were at the picket line Sunday. One of the leaflets distributed at the picket line pretty much summed it up this way: "We are between THE ROCK and a Hard Place!!"

Maybe Nancy and Gavin will pull our fat out of the fire. Or maybe not. Or maybe we will need 2,000 or 20,000 workers on the docks, instead of 200. Otherwise, George Bush's cronies might win this one, and San Francisco's reputation as a "union town" will slip a serious notch or two. Is the San Francisco labor movement up to this challenge?