The Little Things We're Talking About 

Adios, Al Gore: Berkeley J-School dean gets a firsthand lesson in union negotiations; Plus, summer campers better plan ahead — way, way ahead.

AN INCONVENEINT TACTIC:While Al Gore was in Cannes last month plugging his global warming warning doc An Inconvenient Truth, Orville Schell, the outgoing dean of UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, faced his own inconvenient truth: He was about to lose the former vice president as a keynote speaker at a major upcoming event.

Gore was slated to kick off the J-school's China-U.S. Global Climate Change Forum on May 23. But picketers from the local labor union had already scared off politically charged would-be speakers all over campus, including Howard Dean, the planned commencement speaker for Boalt School of Law, and Schell feared Gore would be next. No way the former veep — whom labor endorsed in his 2000 presidential bid — would cross a picket line.

Local 3299 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) has been battling the university since November to boost what spokeswoman Debra Grabelle calls "poverty wages" earned by some three hundred custodians whose contract isn't up for renewal for another two years.

Schell considered downsizing Gore's lecture and making it a privately-sponsored event, or perhaps moving it off-campus to the Berkeley City Club or Tilden Park (how much greener can you get?), or to San Francisco where major conference funders like Suzy Tompkins Buell and Nan Tucker MacEvoy live. But he still wasn't convinced it would solve the dilemma. "They picketed the [April 2006] alumni gala in Fort Mason. Why not picket this?" he says.

Better to make nice. So he phoned Grabelle and left six messages, Schell says. Unable to connect and unwilling to have Gore fly in from Cannes only to face a protest, he nixed the event. At which point Grabelle finally called him back.

"She said she was terribly sorry to hear I'd canceled it," recalls the dean, who offered a reenactment of their talk in a voice bordering on stupefied. "'We canceled it because of you!' I told her. 'Would you stand here before me and say you won't picket? Because I can revive this event.' And she said, 'No, I can't tell you that.' So I said, "Well, then, don't be sorry!"

In a last-ditch effort, Schell proposed placing a flier describing the union's complaint on each of Zellerbach Hall's two-thousand-plus chairs. He'd even rally union support from the podium, and was certain that Gore would, too. Still, Grabelle resisted. "If people get a flier about it, it doesn't help a worker who has to go to a soup kitchen at the end of the day," she told the Express.

Did the union consider working with Schell to find a solution, given its affinity for Gore? "We supported the event. We were, and still are, a big backer of Al Gore. Our target isn't the events. It's the university. Our position has been all along that this can end the moment the university decides it doesn't want to pay poverty wages."

Fortunately for Schell, An Inconvenient Truth was scheduled as part of the forum the very night — and, oddly, at about the same time — that Gore was to speak. Picketing the appearance of politicians onscreen apparently isn't in the union playbook, nor is cutting phone lines. So after the screening, a small group of attendees convened in a library and Gore phoned in to answer questions. "The Forum came off very well, but it was a pity because it was such a perfect fit for him," Schell laments.

Still, if the dean didn't have a distaste for union tactics before, he does now. "I find it pretty ... " — he searches for something restrained — "unconstructive of them to be canceling graduations and things like that. I really don't understand." He vows never to contact the union again. "Nor would I think most people at the university would choose to speak to Grabelle." — Lauren Gard

weekend summer camping? try back in 2007: The rains have stopped, summer's almost here, and gas prices are ludicrous, which means it's prime time for that long-awaited East Bay weekend camping trip. Unless, that is, you forgot to plan ahead. "We're working on August for the weekends," notes Richard Winn, a reservation specialist for East Bay Regional Parks.

In fact, the only reason you might still find open August weekend slots at Del Valle (150 sites), Anthony Chabot (75 sites), and Sunol (4 sites) regional parks is that the district only lets people reserve 'em twelve weeks in advance. Holiday weekends get booked solid the very day they hit the market, Winn says, while normal summer weekends are all snapped at least two months ahead of time (call 510-562-CAMP to learn this the hard way).

If you can swing a Sunday-Thursday trip, though, you're golden. And people willing to labor for their leisure will likely find space available this very weekend at one of seven backpack sites along the Ohlone Wilderness Trail, which is best visited now before a proposed area quarry adds an unwelcome new soundtrack - think dynamite and 24-7 rock crushing. These spots only run $5 per night (compared with $18-$25 for car/RV sites), and residents of Alameda and CoCo counties can reserve through the entire next year starting November 6.

But what kind of loonbag plans that far ahead? — Michael Mechanic

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