Construction Drama at Brava

An unemployed carpenter hands out flyers in front of Brava.

An unemployed carpenter hands out flyers in front of Brava.

En Español

Three men handed out flyers in front of the 471-seat Brava Theater Thursday night but they were not advertising the upcoming Beebo Brinker Chronicles. Instead, their flyers slammed the non-profit arts space for failing to pay the wages and benefits established by their union, Local 22.

“Now performing all the way from Redding, California, Dale Stickney Construction Inc,” read the flyers the men distributed to passersby, referring to the company based in Redding, a city 220 miles northeast of San Francisco.

The target of their protest is Hetal Patel, the managing director at Brava Theater. Each flyer had a picture of a smiling Patel, pulled from the theater website.

“Ask her why an out of town contractor is remodeling the Brava while San Francisco carpenters are struggling for work!!! Shame on her!” the flyer read.

Patel said she is sympathetic to the union but the non-profit theater cannot afford to pay more for the construction of the new space she calls the “Cabaret Off-Brava.”  The Dale Stickney Company was the only one to respond to calls for the $1 million project when Brava put out bids in 2007, she said.

“No union contractors contacted us,” she said. “They thought the project was too small.”

The carpenter’s union said with its workers suffering 30 percent unemployment, pay cuts, and high rates of underemployment, the theater should hire local union employees to do the job rather than bringing in cheaper, non-union labor from elsewhere.

“San Francisco is an expensive place to live and carpenters have organized to preserve a decent wage, healthcare, and retirement,” said Paul Cohen, the union spokesperson.

Andy McDevitt, a 33-year-old apprentice carpenter who handed out flyers Tuesday, said he is entering a year of unemployment.

Dave Crandell, the superintendent for the project at Brava, said three workers are from San Francisco. The other three drive from Redding at the beginning of every week and stay at a hotel, heading home for the weekend. At this stage in the project, there are no local workers on the site, he said.

James Underwood, Stickney’s chief financial officer,  said his workers earn roughly 20 percent less than average union wage. Journeyman carpenters make $36 an hour plus health and retirement benefits, according to the union. This could not be independently confirmed.

Underwood said the Stickney Company has hired union workers in the past but for this job there is not enough money in the contract.

“If we hire exclusively union workers, that’s 20-30 percent higher labor costs,” he said.

While Patel understands the union’s concerns, she said the situation can’t be remedied. When Brava put out bids, the construction market was flush with jobs and workers weren’t desperately searching to make a living. The Redding company offered a price that Brava, paying for the project with a grant from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment, could afford.

Patel said a union representative advised her to fire the Stickney Company and hire local union workers. But she said breaking the contract could result in a financial “black hole” for the theater. She would have considered hiring union workers, she said, if a union contractor had agreed to her price.

“All of this is grant money,” Patel said. “We have to use it specifically for this project.”

In February of last year, the organization faced a freeze of half a million dollars in state funding, forcing it to put the construction project on hold for nine months and unable to pay the company for work it had done. The project started up again last November when the state released funds. The building should have been finished by April of 2009.

“This company went above and beyond,” she said. “They could have sued us. They could have taken our building already.”

During the freeze in state funds at the end of the year, rain fell through a hole in the roof and damaged most of the construction materials. Patel took out loans to replace the ruined goods.

“The project is a lot more expensive than it was supposed to be,” she said.

Patel and Underwood said that last week the Stickney Company filed police reports claiming that the union demonstrators broke the window of a worker’s car, blew bullhorns inappropriately, and trespassed in the construction space.

Cohen, the labor spokesman, called the actions unlikely and said he has not heard about them.

“If that did happen, whoever did it would face severe discipline and there would be arrests,” he said.

“We don’t condone breaking people’s windows,” said Cohen. As to the trespassing allegations, he said that state law gives union members the right to inspect job sites to find out whether there are workers in need of representation.

“I don’t take allegations of trespassing seriously,” he added. “The law is on our side.”

Cohen said the union is not after the contract but argued that Brava should pay the workers the area’s standard rate for the construction project.

The Cabaret Off-Brava is scheduled to open in the fall. For the first few months, it will function as a space for classes and rehearsals. Brava will postpone using it for performances until funds arrive to pay for lighting and other stage equipment.

Patel says her biggest concerns right now are getting the space up and running and selling tickets for the three-week run of the long awaited Chronicles of Beebo Brinkle, canceled last year because of budget cuts.

Patel questioned why the union is worried about what a non-profit association is doing. “Why aren’t they going after corporations?” she asked.

“I can’t even pay my staff in this economy,” she said, adding that only two employees work full-time and one was recently laid off. “To be asking for a job I can’t give you, I don’t know how to solve that problem.”

13 Comments

  1. Donny

    I like how elitist liberals such as Patel talk a good game but when the rubber hits the road it’s damn those workers, what makes them think they deserve a livable wage.

    Patel can drink her chardonnay and talk high art and the plight of the Tibetans and give the American worker the shaft at the same time.

  2. Memacdad

    Unions: A broad base for social justice or just another special interest group. What part of “No-Money” isn’t understood in this case?

  3. Abigail Wick

    Like Patel, I also wonder why Local 22 isn’t targeting corporate development, where the funds exist to pay union workers. The cost of living in SF is increasingly expensive: workers have the right to call on financially sustainable companies to support the city’s residents, and companies have the responsibility for responding to workers’ needs.

    It sounds like Brava’s ethics are in the right place–the underfunded neighborhood theater would prefer to contract union workers to construct the new cabaret–but at this time it isn’t financially tenable.

    Great article!

  4. Jim Hewitt

    Man, as an unemployed San Franciscan, it burns me up when good local jobs go to people from Redding when there are literally hundreds of competent and capable San Franciscans able to do the work. Also, construction work is dangerous and hard. These carpenters deserve good wages and health benefits. Paying less than the area standard for wages and not paying benefits at all is shady in my opinion. This should have been taken into consideration when the grant application was written. Finally, I am sure beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Carpenters Union is going after “big corporations” as well as the Brava. Work is work…it doesn’t matter where it comes from, but if its in San Francisco it needs to pay area standard wages. Good job carpenters.

  5. skim

    If the workers in SF wanted the project, they should have gone for it from the beginning. Protesting years after the SF workers declined the project is DUM.

  6. gregory

    heads i win (boom time, fatter contracts), tails i win (bust, union imposed artificial floor).

    sounds like a banker i know….

  7. Donny

    Let’s see here, the way I figure is those SF Carpenters pay taxes etc. but don’t benefit when those same dollars are distributed back out to SF businesses.

    As I said earlier its a simple case of the middle class bourgeoisie sipping wine acting righteous and screwing the working class. I especially like Petal saying don’t pick on me because I’m part of the liberal elite she claims to be a friend of the worker at the same time she walks past out of work SF construction workers and traffic scabs into the city to steal their jobs.

    I can assure you the Union is confronting the issue of exploitation wherever it appears. It’s people like Petal that receive the economic benefits from exploitation but still want to appear as their hands are clean.

  8. sylvia

    Brava is a non-profit arts organization…read, not-for-profit, not trying to make a profit. They barely make enough money to support one salary in the entire organization and stay running at the same time. This is a community based organization that consistently features voices from our Mission and San Francisco arts community. It functions in a large part through the time and talent of volunteers from the community.

    The grant they received to complete construction could not have stretched to the fattened costs of union workers, so they went with what they could afford. They hired out of town contractors in order to continue to support the artistic voices in their own community.

    And lastly, where was the union when they were accepting bids for the job? What good is whining about it years later when they are already contracted with another company?

    Shame on union workers for targeting arts administrators who work for pennies and artists who receive even less for their passion, artistry and dedication to their community.

  9. JP

    The theater must have figured labor costs in the initial grant proposal. Did they figure for local union wages or did they base it on a lower bid? Have SF Union wages increased since 2007?

    It’s too late for the SF workers to get the job, they missed the opportunity by not bidding and they should have protested in 2007.

    The theater should be paying the out-of-towners SF wages (as of the time of the bid – 2007). If there is not enough money in the grant for the project under those terms they shouldn’t have started it.

  10. riffrandal

    What is Donny talking about middle class bourgeoisie? Look how much money they’re demanding-over $36/hr. plus benefits. Seems to me that if you’ve been out of work for over a year and now you’re picking on a non-profit community arts organization, your union has failed you.

  11. sara

    I was just walking by Brava today and this is what I saw: two young women under thirty, sitting in a cold lobby cutting dress peices for and upcoming play. Outside, I saw two big guys that handed me this flyer too – the flyer doesn’t tell me anything and feels like the local 22 would prefer to have lower 24th Street suffer from more crime while the building is dark. It’s all boarded up. It isn’t safe for women to be there while these men stand in front of it. And, I don’t think anyone in the union has any idea how little money an arts non profit Brava’s size has. Also, as a painter myself – it is embarrassing to hear that there is the idea that someone who is creative is bourgeosie?! Really? And, I haven’t met one artist who has ever liked Chardonnay;-)
    Point being, the girls in the cold lobby of the theater didn’t look like elites – they work pretty working class to me. Personally, I hope Brava can finish the building in peace – the whole neighborhood is ready for it to be SAFE on lower 24th!!!

  12. alex

    she’s using public funds on this project, which means that if she’s paying here people the low rates that the article says then she’s breaking the law. its awfully terrible when you can’t manage to follow the law then cry that you’re a poor incompetent arts administrator

  13. Michael

    So It’s now July 30th 2010 and Brava theater has not delivered on any of its promisses for the “cabaret off Brava”.
    Where did the money go? The building was better when it had a small coffee house and a bar. Now it is just urban blightthat has been going on for over two years. This neighborhood deserves better! Brava has a street scaffolding blocking sidewalk access for the handicapped and pedestrians. This needs to go! Brava has been a terrible disappointment to the local residents.

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