Union claims S.F. Rec and Park not living up to intentions of city gardener apprentice program 

click to enlarge The union representing Recreation and Park Department gardeners mailed a letter to city officials accusing Executive Director Phil Ginsburg of mismanaging an apprentice program meant to train city gardeners. - MIKE KOOZMIN/S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner File Photo
  • The union representing Recreation and Park Department gardeners mailed a letter to city officials accusing Executive Director Phil Ginsburg of mismanaging an apprentice program meant to train city gardeners.

The Recreation and Park Department is defending its hiring practices in the face of scathing accusations related to a gardener apprentice program.

Union officials have accused Executive Director Phil Ginsburg of shortchanging the celebrated state-certified program — a partnership between the union, Rec and Park, and City College of San Francisco — while boosting upper management at the expense of hiring more gardeners. Rec and Park called the accusations nothing more than “locker-room chatter.”

Local 261 of the Laborers International Union of North America, which represents some 180 city gardeners, alleged in a letter sent last month to city officials that Ginsburg is hampering the apprentice program, which started in 2010.

Union officials say that while the program is supposed to provide a skilled workforce better equipped to care for city parks, the department is opting to hire inferior outside candidates. Additionally, they say the department should use the program more to address the shortage in gardeners. The department is short about 200 gardeners for the 4,000 acres of open space under its care, Rec and Park officials say.

The fight has now reached City Hall, as Supervisor John Avalos has scheduled a hearing Wednesday to “unclog” the talks between Ginsburg and union leaders. Both sides have been meeting with board members in recent weeks.

The union represents about 900 city employees, including the gardeners, and is known for turning out large numbers at hearings.

The conflict escalated last month when the union mailed a scathing “reprimand” of Ginsburg to elected officials.

“This is uncharted territory,” said Local 261 business agent Theresa Foglio, who drafted the letter. “No labor organization has ever written up a head of a department before. We are exploring all our legal options.”

The March 20 letter said Ginsburg has a “duty” to support the program and promote participants as “you have so successfully promoted management.”

“You have found creative ways to increase staffing and compensation for staff that do not work in the Parks, while also building a team to promote these activities, all of which we believe is at the expense of frontline maintenance staff,” the letter said.

Ginsburg responded with his own letter saying he was “saddened” by the union’s tactics and their “disheartening rebukes.”

Union officials say the apprentice program is suffering from Ginsburg’s failure to promote and invest in it.

According to the department, 37 gardeners have been hired since May 2011, of whom eight were apprentices.

There are 11 people currently in the program, and the union says eight are ready to become gardeners. Participants complete up to 4,000 hours, or up to three years, of training while taking relevant CCSF courses paid for by the union.

Rec and Park maintains that it’s fulfilling its end of the bargain and also hiring every candidate from the program when they meet the eligibility requirements.

“The department is dedicated to this program as evidenced by our $2 million annual investment in our 27 apprentices and our commitment to hire every person who graduates from the program,” Rec and Park spokeswoman Sarah Ballard said of total enrollment since the program started. “The rest is just locker-room chatter.”

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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