Ken Garcia: Unions, others skew truth in Hornblower labor battle

As anyone can tell by the seemingly never-ending activities of striking union hotel workers in San Francisco, grappling with labor issues here can be a painful, noisy, chaotic mess.

And when you add in The City’s Byzantine political nature, you can find yourself laboring in uncharted waters.

That would describe some recent headline-hunting tussles aimed at Hornblower Yachts, the well-known ferry operator that has been the object of some incendiary accusations by several union groups and others — charges that have not withstood that little standard known as the truth.

It will explain, however, a rather mysterious occurrence a few weeks back when a congressional subcommittee on national parks, forest and public lands was scheduled to hold an oversight hearing in San Francisco specifically on Hornblower’s Alcatraz Cruises concession contract. It would be a strange thing for a House of Representatives committee to travel all the way to San Francisco to discuss one contract, so strange that word started getting around that it was essentially going to be a one-way express aimed at maligning the nonunion operation.

But just as mysteriously, the chairman of the subcommittee, Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva (who just happens to get most of his campaign contributions from large labor unions), canceled the hearing when it appeared the room was going to be filled only with him and some union organizers — a dog-and-pony show missing the pony.

Another sideshow was played out months earlier when a former Alcatraz Cruises deckhand, Vincent Atos, was supposedly fired for allegedly sexually harassing other male employees. Atos filed complaints with The City’s Human Rights Commission and the National Labor Relations Board claiming he was fired for any number of reasons, including that he was a labor organizer and that he was terminated on the basis of sexual orientation. Officials from the Harvey Milk Democratic Club and The City’s Democratic County Central Committee wrote letters asserting that he was fired for being “too gay.”

The story made a splash in some local newspapers. But the labor board investigated Atos’ allegations and found that he was an ardent union organizer, which Hornblower executives knew when they hired him. Yet, as to the sexual orientation charge, the board determined that Atos was fired after Hornblower investigated employee complaints about his inappropriate workplace behavior and concluded that there was “no basis” for his allegation.

Atos appealed the decision, and it was denied last week. End of story.

Not Hornblower’s, however.

In 1998, Hornblower employees held an election on whether they wanted to be represented by a union, and they rejected the move. Four years ago, Hornblower won the Alcatraz ferry contract from the National Park Service and engaged in lengthy negotiations with the Masters, Mates and Pilots, the Inland Boatman’s Union and others — contract talks that were mediated by the Mayor’s Office and included representatives from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. The negotiations didn’t end in a labor contract, in part because the unions demanded guarantees for all job classifications, which meant that the company would have been required to hire only union members instead of Hornblower employees with 20 years of experience.

But Hornblower is hardly anti-union. It has the contract to provide ferry service to Ellis Island in New York, and its operation there is unionized.

It also has a sterling safety record and has received a number of awards for environmental standards for its fleet.

Yet, because it doesn’t have a union contract here, it has been targeted by labor organizers who picketed the company’s headquarters for months — illegally, as it turned out — until the labor board intervened. And after four years of operation, the employees at Alcatraz Cruises have shown little desire for union representation.

That’s a choice sometimes made by employees at companies where they are paid prevailing wages and benefits and aren’t subject to union dues and work rules. When I left the Newspaper Guild to work at the nonunion Los Angeles Times years ago, it was a nonissue because the Times paid higher wages and benefits than the newspaper union.

Labor contracts don’t necessarily make for a better workplace. But if you want political hijinks, you might try looking under the union label.

Ken Garcia appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@sfexaminer.com.

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