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Smith says his construction project ended up in a tug of war between the ABU and the unions.
"We were kind of getting held hostage by the ABU," Smith says. When he tried to make accommodations to the ABU in order to defuse the protests, he says, the electricians' union wouldn't let the hires go through. The ABU started targeting electricians in particular.
"They'd follow guys up the stairwell, trying to block them from getting [into] the job ... guys were very nervous being out there."
For Smith, the breaking point was when ABU members shouted out the home address of the site superintendent, who happened to be a local hire from the Bayview, and promised to pay him a visit.
Freddie Carter is a black man who has lived in the neighborhood for 37 years. He says he knows most of the ABU protesters. Not only did the ABU members shout his address, he says, but one protester confronted him in the neighborhood, demanding a job, and also drove by his house. That crossed the line, Carter says. "Now you're dealing with my family. Mess with me, but don't mess with my family."
Blackwell says the threat of violent confrontation between the workers and the ABU became serious enough that Mayor Gavin Newsom stepped in to broker a deal between the conflicting parties.
The Third Street construction conflict highlighted some of the most unsavory elements of the ABU's tactics, but it also prompted real advances in the city's approach to local hiring. As a result of the ABU's protests, the pressure on contractors and subcontractors to meet their local hiring goals, and the high-level intervention by the mayor, the Third Street construction sites reached the 50 percent local hiring mark.
That kind of involvement by city leaders isn't a sustainable model in the long run, Blackwell says. But a group of city and union officials and contractors are now meeting to try to hammer out achievable — and enforceable — local hiring goals. Local hiring is also getting a lot of political attention. Supervisor John Avalos proposed legislation in January that would give the "good faith" requirement teeth by mandating a minimum percentage of local hires on city jobs, instead of merely requiring contractors to make an effort to comply with quotas. This legislation would also make it easier for the city to fine contractors who don't cooperate. Avalos says he wants the required quota to be as close to 50 percent as possible, but he's still in conversation with stakeholders about what's really feasible.
"I would not be happy at all with 25 [percent]," Avalos says. "I think that's probably where the contractors and the labor unions would like to see things end up, and community groups want to see things much higher."
At the moment, though, even some of the ABU's targets say the group's aggressive tactics are serving an important purpose. Local hiring goals are often ignored, Freddie Carter says. "The city, the programs, they don't have the muscles to make these things really function."
Smith, Carter's former boss, is on the same page: He says that even though his company makes real efforts to meet the local hiring goals, it's often difficult to convince subcontractors to take the requirement seriously. "To be honest," he says, "I think James Richards has done a lot for this issue."
Much as he dislikes the ABU's tactics, Carter says, "When something works, you keep pushing the button that gets results."
The ABU members moved quickly through the metal detectors and piled, one by one, into the small gold cage of the City Hall elevator. It is a charming structure, all delicate gilded bars. This did not seem to impress them. One of the men said City Hall reminded him of a prison. The elevator door slid shut without a sound.
The ABU contingent was headed for the office of City Administrator Ed Lee. When they arrived, they informed one of Lee's staffers that James Richards and the ABU were here to see him.
Did they have an appointment?
No, they did not. But they would wait until Lee was willing to see them.
Within minutes, the ABU members were shown to a conference room, and Lee himself arrived to talk.
The issue on that day was the larger dispute between laborers and electricians over who should be allowed to install solar panels. Richards wanted to know why one of the city offices that Lee oversees, the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement (OLSE), had offered a ruling in the dispute that favored the electricians.
If just electricians could install solar panels, that would mean basic laborers — including the ABU's workers — would be shut out of a promising area of green-collar employment. The laborers' union was watching the issue closely, and a contractor from the Sunset Reservoir project had filed an official appeal of the OLSE ruling. But Richards was taking a more personal approach.
"We don't want to fight you, Ed, and we don't want to fight Gavin, but if it comes down to that — ," Richards said.
"I support every effort to get people working," Lee said.