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.”