Seven Days

Plasterers picket Berkeley library; Day laborers worry merchants on Fourth street

‘A’ is for Anarchist, ‘B’ is for Beltway:
When you hear loud rave music in Berkeley, do you quake in your Birkenstocks? The FBI apparently thinks you should. In testimony to Congress in May, FBI Director Louis Freeh included Reclaim the Streets in his laundry list of domestic terrorist threats from “extreme socialist groups” that like to party or are associated with those who like to party. For those who don’t know, Reclaim the Streets has staged demonstrations at several Berkeley intersections over the past few years, usually characterized by traffic blockages, random placing of pieces of living room furniture, and an anti-capitalist message set to techno music — but not violence. So it came as a shock to some of RTS’s core writhers that they’ve been branded potential terrorists by the feds, alongside such nasties as the Aryan Nation, the Puerto Rican independence movement, and — horror of horrors — the Carnival Against Capitalism.

Files? What files?
Oops, they did it again: Last summer, we told you about a class-action lawsuit filed against Contra Costa accusing the county of discriminating against minorities and women. Lawyers for minority- and women-owned business argued that the county for years had hired an unrepresentatively small number of these businesses for county jobs — and that the county had known about the discrepancy for years. When it came to light that the county had destroyed a number of contracting records requested by the plaintiffs, a federal magistrate ruled that it was reasonable to assume “that the destroyed files reflected discrimination against women- and minority-owned businesses in the awarding of County contracts.” Last month, the case finally came to trial, and after three weeks of arguments, lawyers for the plaintiffs felt they had proved their case fairly well. But then came the bombshell: a county clerk testified that the county had kept its own internal audit of the number of contracts it awarded to businesses owned by women or minorities — a record-keeping the county had previously denied. “It was a really unbelievable turn of events,” says Oren Sellstrom of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, representing the plaintiff. “The judge said he had not seen anything like it in his 28 years on the bench — and he was really irate.”

Federal District Judge William Orrick took the county to task for playing “hide-the-ball,” and he suggested that the plaintiff should request financial compensation. But the minorities and women have never asked for financial gain — they just want the county to change its ways. After pouring over the 130 pages of previously hidden documents that the county faxed to him at 9 p.m. the night before closing arguments, Sellstrom filed a brief asking for the case to be decided by default since pivotal evidence was withheld. “Short of a court order, I do not believe there is going to be equality for minority- and women-owned business,” Sellstrom says. “Over the last decade, the county has been aware that its contracting program disproportionately excludes minority- and women-owned businesses. It’s clearly been entrenched in that county.”

No work on Fourth Street:
The last ten years of prosperity seem to have made us into a soft bunch indeed. In the early ’90s, few people would have been shocked when confronted with visible hallmarks of hard times — such as the sight of Latino immigrant men idly waiting on street corners, looking to pick up construction work for the day. But we have been so blessed lately that when the inevitable downturn came — and the unemployed began to reappear on the street — it seems so, well, unfamiliar. It seems many Berkeley citizens have been dismayed to discover that crowds of up to 160 young, mostly Latino, men have recently begun assembling near the West Berkeley lumber outlet Truitt & White, looking for work. Certainly the managers of Truitt & White aren’t happy to see them. “Our customers have voiced many complaints and concerns over the day laborers’ presence and actions,” company president Warren White wrote in a recent letter to the City Council. “Customers’ vehicles can be swarmed by groups of laborers as they are entering or leaving our parking lot, with laborers leaning into the vehicles. Some contractors say they are hesitant to send their customers into our yard to view products because of the aggressive nature of some of the laborers…. We are continually having to clean up the garbage they leave strewn around our property.”

The crowd of unemployed men has finally come to the attention of Mayor Shirley Dean, who has requested the City Manager’s office begin studying ways to impose order onto the day laborer scene. “The concern is twofold,” Dean says. “One is hanging out on the street without bathroom facilities, and there’s a concern about how it sorts itself out when someone with work comes along — we need to make sure there aren’t fights over who gets the work. We might need a hiring hall with bathroom facilities, maybe there could be some English services, some health care services. But we need to do more formal surveys than what I have done — I don’t want to reinvent the wheel.” Of course, there are countless potential pitfalls when city governments try to formalize a black market economy, especially when undocumented immigrants are leery of exposing themselves to the authorities. “We don’t need Berkeley creating a crackdown on immigrants,” says City Councilmember Kriss Worthington. “We have to make sure that no one is required to report anyone to the INS.”

But according to one City Hall source, the day laborers are merely the most dramatic evidence of our slowing economy to date, and we can only expect more unattractive manifestations of poverty on the streets: “The economy has already affected the construction market, and people who once held regular jobs are back on the day market. Architects are laying people off madly; I’ve had architects call me and ask if there are any city construction projects coming up, and that hasn’t happened to me in years, because the construction market’s been so strong. That means the projects aren’t happening, and if the design is not happening, then the construction will fall off.”

If you can’t beat ’em, run away from them:
Early this year we brought you the story of MSGi Direct, the Berkeley telefundraising firm that passes the hat for progressive causes and yet allegedly had some very nonprogressive labor practices in place at its own workplace — union-busting, to be exact. Workers tired of low pay and nonexistent health plans tried to unionize, and succeeded in getting the majority of their coworkers to sign union cards. But by the time the union vote came around, many workers had changed their minds. Union organizers for ILWU Local 6 argued that the switch was caused by the company’s illegal anti-union tactics (which included last-minute raises and new equipment to win over workers, as well as threats and bribes) and, in what labor leaders hail as a landmark decision, a federal judge agreed. Now the company is legally mandated to broker a deal with the union it fought so hard to keep out, but on the very day that bargaining began, MSGi announced its intention to pack up and leave. “We’re under court order that they should negotiate for the people here, so we’re saying this breaks the law,” says ILWU’s Marcy Rein. Last week, MSGi confirmed the closing of its Berkeley Calling Center by the end of August — and they did it late on July 3, just in time for the holiday. Happy Fourth, everybody; you’re out of a job.

Development makes strange bedfellows:
To wit: the blossoming friendship between Ali Kashani, head of nonprofit builder Affordable Housing Associates, and the Gown Town’s favorite for-profit developer, Patrick Kennedy. OK, the word “friendship” might be a hyperbolic description of the former foes’ current relationship. But it seems that they have put aside any hard feelings left over from their head-to-head battle to win development rights at the old state health department property on University and Acton (which Kennedy won). Not too long ago, Kennedy even turned up at a wine-tasting fundraiser for Affordable Housing Associates. And, sources tell 7 Days, the two recently teamed up and have been lobbying the City Council to streamline the zoning application process for projects with affordable housing. Could there a business partnership down the road? No, Kashani chuckles. “With Patrick,” he explains, “it’s just strategic alliances. I’m not going to do a project with him.”

Meanwhile, Kashani is embarking on his first for-profit development in Berkeley at the Gorman Furniture site on Telegraph. Kashani predicts he would have the blessing of the Landmark Preservation Commission to construct 27 rental units atop the 100-year-old furniture store. The real obstacle, he grouses, is Zoning Officer Mark Rhoades, who apparently wants Ali to do a costly, time-consuming environmental impact report. Requiring an EIR, Kashani warns, could persuade him to walk away from the project. “The city is going to lose the furniture store and the building if staff doesn’t cooperate with us,” Kashani says. “And I don’t get the sense that staff is going to cooperate with us.”

Up against the walls:
There’s another holdup at the Berkeley Public Library Main Branch project. The Plasterers Union Local 66 went on strike last week against their employer, subcontractor Ronnie French. None of the other union workers will cross the picket line, so the only work that’s being done at the library is electrical work from a nonunion firm. The sticking point is wages; according to Ian Burns, a plasterer and member of Local 66, the workers are asking for a $9-per-hour raise over the next three years, and the company is offering a $6-per-hour. Burns pointed out that it’s dangerous work — a bucket fell on an apprentice recently and broke his back — and they demand to share in the overall profits of the construction industry. The library’s building project manager, Elena Engel, doesn’t seem overly concerned about the delay. “It’s not really something we can do anything about,” Engel says. “But anytime there’s a strike, we’re concerned about it.” Burns estimates that the strike will go on at least until the end of this week. No word yet on when the new library will finally be completed.

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