Union Blues 

Warning: Staging events at Richmond's city-owned auditorium may be hazardous to your pocketbook; Safeway stuck for shorting shoppers.

The Richmond City Council could pull the plug on its long-standing deal with the local stagehands' union after a promoter who staged a recent event at the city-owned convention center auditorium accused the union of shaking him down for $1,500. A rep for the hundred-member International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 107 says the claim is bogus, but some council members view it as part of a long string of gripes by promoters forced to hire the high-priced union specialists for their events. "People who use the auditorium complain bitterly all the time," says Councilman Tom Butt.

D'Andre Wells, a partner in MK Productions, says his company had booked the auditorium a year in advance to host a televised high-school basketball game between Salesian and Pinole high schools this past December. A week before the event, Wells paid the city $1,237 to rent the facility, which he figured was all-inclusive. But two days before the game, the promoter says he got a phone call from a union guy demanding $1,500 in cash or a cashier's check, "or else my event would be canceled or sabotaged" by cutting off the power. At first Wells refused, but he ultimately wrote $750 personal checks to each of two Local 107 stagehands. A month later Wells, a former Richmond city employee who was laid off in 2003 because of budget cutbacks, filed a legal claim against the city, demanding his money back. In the claim, he asked: "Why must I pay more for the electrical hookup than the entire rental of the auditorium itself?"

Charma Ferreira, the business agent for Local 107, adamantly denies that anyone from his shop strong-armed Wells. Ferreira says the building steward had e-mailed the promoter but that he hadn't responded. When Wells finally called the union's office, Ferreira says the promoter couldn't tell the steward what he wanted to do and had no real plan. Ferreira says he wound up sending just two of his guys over, although the union requires a minimum of four laborers for an event. Wells got a fair deal, he adds. "If Mr. Wells felt like he was being abused, then he doesn't know the industry well enough to know when he's really being taken advantage of," Ferreira says.

IATSE has had a decades-long arrangement to staff staged events at the 3,750-seat auditorium. Its detractors say the union has gotten territorial over the public facility. Public Works chief Rich McCoy says the local keeps keys not only to the auditorium, but to parts of it that city employees can't even access, a claim Ferreira denies. McCoy also says the union has taken possession of fuses necessary to operate some of the electrical equipment. Ferreira acknowledges that the building's steward, Mike Curtis, does have "adapters" to some of the lights, but says they are Curtis' personal property.

Some event planners have complained that when they booked the auditorium the city didn't warn them how much extra they'd need to pay for union stagehands. That's what John Felder says happened to a March 2004 charity fund-raiser for the Malvern-Wilson High School Alumni Association, featuring a performance by gospel group the Mighty Clouds of Joy. Felder, who helped organize the event, says by the time the alumni association was told it would have to shell out nearly $8,000 for Local 107 workers, it was too late to back out. The nonprofit group hasn't done any more events at the auditorium. The facility, meanwhile, needs all the bookings it can get -- according to numbers provided by city finance director Pat Samsell, the hall was nearly $30,000 in the red for the second half of 2004 alone.

Felder also grouses about having to pay Local 107 workers so much even though the union doesn't seem to have a contract with the city. Indeed, it appears Richmond hasn't had a formal finalized contract with Local 107 for years. McCoy, however, says there's an "implied contract," since the city has continued to do business with IATSE. In any case, if city leaders terminate the business relationship, they'll need to find someone else to flick the switches.

That may not be so easy. In one event contract, a city building supervisor justified the use of Local 107, saying it was the only organization in the area that "provides this type of service."

Wells is less polite: Noting that the auditorium's equipment is antiquated, he contends that the union has basically rigged the hall so that its members are the only ones who know how to make things work properly. And, of course, they have the keys to the place.

How Much Is That Single-Layer Banana Split Cake in the Window?
Pleasanton-based Safeway has quietly agreed to pay Contra Costa County $89,600 for overcharging customers for prepackaged baked goods and meats at several of its stores. The grocery chain's lawyers signed a consent decree with the county last month in which they agreed to pay a $60,000 civil penalty plus $29,600 to cover the county's investigative costs. Safeway reps also promised to prevent future overcharges by conducting a daily accuracy check on their scales.

The case was launched at the end of 2001 when a county weights and measures inspector found that packages of dinner rolls at the Safeway store at 2600 Willow Pass Road in Concord were 20 percent lighter than indicated on the price tag. Since the price was weight-based, Safeway was overcharging for the rolls. In his report to the district attorney, the inspector said he went to seven other stores throughout the county and found that all ninety dinner-roll samples he checked were "shortweight." He also noted that Safeway stores had mispriced in-store meats and poultry in the past.

Exactly how much the scale errors cost consumers is unclear. Deputy District Attorney Steve Bolen says some the mispriced items were weighed with in-store scales, while others were weighed and priced at Safeway's Northern California distribution facility in Tracy. Bolen, who works in the DA's consumer protection division, haggled with Safeway for three years over the terms of its punishment for what the county termed "unfair business practices." During that time county inspectors found more scale errors for meats and baked goods. One year ago, the Willow Pass Road store was found to be overcharging an average of 75 cents for single-layer banana-split cakes.

Bolen won't go so far as to say the store conspired to overcharge its customers -- investigators also found errors that led to undercharging -- nor did Safeway admit to any intentional wrongdoing in its settlement with the county. As of late, Bolen says, the chain's scales seem to be working properly. Now, if only the county would start cracking down on the brain-numbing Muzak Safeway imposes on its shoppers.

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