Taking a walk down to Union Square

I had to take a trip down to Union Square yesterday which means this should officially be the next post for the 49 mile scenic trip around San Francisco, but it’s going to encompass a little bit more. When you get off the metro at Powell Street station and return to the land of living you’re confronted with something much different than your quiet little neighborhood where you started…PEOPLE!

More accurately defined as members of the species, Homo touristus, or Tourists. You can tell them from their glazed over look trying to take in everything around them and understand how you can have a really crappy tourist shop next to a very high end fashion outlet or they’re just filling up the space to try and get a ride on our famous cable cars which have their turnaround at the end of their line at Powell and Market. If you’ve never seen a cable car turnaround it’s kind of impressive. The cable car drives onto a large turntable and unhooks from the underground cable. Then two guys literally turn it around so it can head outbound with all the passengers on the new track.

The people who work in and around this area you can tell because their the one’s who are darting through the zombie tourists much like a quarterback doing an end run. When you get to a stop light you more collect into a denser crowd until the light changes and you have to navigate through the horde coming at you from the opposite direction.

Finally after a few blocks you hit Union Square where everything opens up, sort of. I was there around lunch time so it was expected to be crowded. It was the first warm summery day that we’ve had in awhile so there were plenty of short skirts out enjoying the weather with in term brought out more guys to ogle them hoping for a quick breeze to give the skirts some lift. There was a band playing, since it was lunch time which attracted even more people, but at least you had some room to breathe.

This made me wonder how Union Square came to be so I did a little research. It turns out that it was set aside in 1850 by the first American Mayor of San Francisco, John Geary to hold pro-Union rallies. Not the unions you’re thinking of but the pre-Civil war Union vs. Confederates. In 1903 a pillar dedicated to Admiral Dewey’s victory at the Battle of Manila Bay was put in place. Then Mayor Willie Brown, closed the square in 2000 for renovation so that it didn’t look like some kind of Russian industrial playground, but more park-like. Reopening in 2002 it became the unofficial heart of San Francisco where you will readily find art shows, free bands and I believe they still have a farmer’s market there, but I couldn’t find any info on it.

The real reason people come to this area is for retail therapy. This is where you come to shop. Since I grew up in the Sunset District we’d usually go to the Stonestown Mall or Serramonte rather than downtown, but my Grandmother always loved going downtown. I think because it made her feel like an upper crust society woman [my Grandmother was the executive secretary for the Women’s City Club, a place where women whose children had left the nest went to drink tea and eat watercress sandwiches until their husband’s came home from work.]

At Union Square you’ll find Macy’s, Tiffany’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and all the other, if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it type stores intermixed with the Sketchers and Diesel chains for the younger crowd who don’t ask the price, but just ask their parents to pay the bill. Side note, I once actually paid $75 for a Diesel belt that has held up to all the wear and tear over the 10 years I’ve had it, but I won’t be making any purchases like that for at least another 10 years. I do like to window shop at least and you can do that too for free.

You’ll also find all the upper crust hotels here such as the St. Francis with Beefeater dressed doorman, the Grand Hyatt and Four Seasons along with many other pricey, but luxury hotels. What’s a hotel without places to eat? One of the things I never realized before was just how many steak houses and hof brau type restaurants were in the area. You get plenty of food at not too expensive prices and the surrounds are, acceptable, not suit and tie luxury, but you could do a lot worse. The best known of these places is Lefty O’Douls. A place I and many other denizens of San Francisco history have been found here. Let’s just say if you want to save your money, go to Lefty’s. It’s probably the cheapest spot on the square and the best bang for your buck. Lefty’s deserves its own posting so I’ll leave it at that.

If you haven’t been to Union Square you should go to take in a sense of San Francisco. Now I want to go to Lefty’s.



So a Bull Walks into a Union Shop…

I was working at a printshop a little over a decade ago and lost my job after I had a stroke. I wasn’t exactly told why, but they let me go. I can only assume that it might have raised their insurance premiums because I has a health risk. As it turned out the company started to go downhill from there. I have a curse that I somehow developed in that every company that I have been laid off/fired from usually goes under within 6 months. There’s only one company so far that’s still moving along in a crippled state and they should be gone shortly.

Now after I lost that job it turns out there was a print service bureau up the street that was getting more work than they could handle and I was the cute hard working guy they new because when we had a breakdown in our film processing equipment they’d send me over there for a fix. This was a union shop and I had never worked for a union shop before and my eyes lit up. Unions! They always paid you big bucks, got you great health benefits and you got lots of time off and in this case you only had to work a 7 hour day which included your lunch. Two thumbs up! Strangely enough, the three owners of this small business started the company unionized. As a matter of fact the printers union was the first union ever started int he United States. Well, this is where the fun stops.

I was used to having to produce start to finish 30-40 jobs a day from electronic artwork to finished printing plates. Now I only had to produce the finished artwork. I liked starting at 7:30 in the morning which seemed ambitious to everyone except one of the owners who would open the place at 7am. While things went fine for a few months I noticed them asking me to slow down on my work because I wasn’t leaving anything for the other two workers to do. Then with the dot com bomb there slowly became less and less work coming in and because I was so efficient they were having to send home employee’s with more time on the job. This was totally against union rules and so since I was the newbie to the bunch they finally laid me off. The unfortunate part was that the others who worked there weren’t as efficient as I was so in the end even though they had less work, what was taking me 15 minutes to do was taking them 2-3 hours to do and they started to lose customers which meant even less work and they eventually closed down.

Today you won’t find a single union printer within San Francisco and you won’t find very many small non-union printers in San Francisco any more either. So now let’s move forward a few years. I was out of work and heard that Safeway’s union had re-negotiated their pay scale so that checkers were making $20/hour. I start thinking this would be easy so I went in and applied and they were very eager to hire me. I passed all the tests with flying colors and was invited to the first training meeting. Here’s where it starts to get weird. Most of the people in the meeting did not have English as a first language there were four people who fell asleep during the training session and one women who just about passed out, but it still sounded great so I went along with it. They didn’t say anything about pay though so after the four hour training session which happened to be at my local Safeway I went down and found the manager that I always said hi to when I was shopping there. I asked him, “So I hear that the checkers are making $20/hour now when does that start?” His answer, “They didn’t tell you in the meeting? You start at minimum wage which after a year you were eligible, but not guaranteed full time work at minimum wage and you get incremental pay increases each year so you won’t be making $20/hour for about 10 years.”

Crap, waste of time. I can’t raise my family on $9.75/hour part time. Start looking again. This led me to start thinking about unions.

Unions were started to protect workers from being exploited by their employees. This was a good thing. People weren’t being paid what their job was worth in the marketplace and when they unionized they had higher wages, job protection and benefits. In Safeway’s case they may as well have not been unionized because they were paying crap and had a high turnover rate. Most of the people in the training session with me weren’t even legal voting age yet. For them it was probably a good job. For me having a family it sucked.

Then you have toll takers on the Golden Gate Bridge that they’re going to be getting rid of because their union get’s them paid $27/hour and fully paid benefits for them and their families at no additional cost. They have to paid about $50 union dues a month which at $27/hour is nothing and their job…taking money and making change. $27/hour is a bit on the high side wouldn’t you say? You don’t even need a high school diploma to get that kind of job.

Workers do need some protection, but by this I mean good workers. People who have the talent and skills to do the job should be paid accordingly. We now have lots of “start ups” I attended a meeting of one last night and I worked for one a few months ago under the jobs now program. Then I was getting paid because they were getting reimbursed by the federal government for hiring unemployed parents. Great job. I was being paid what I was worth and encouraged to learn new skills. Then the subsides ended and so did the job unless I wanted to work for private equity. Private equity means you earn shares in a company that are pretty much worthless unless someone offers to buy out the company. There are many companies who managed to make this work, but there are far more who haven’t. While computing is moving towards the cloud, I’m not letting my paycheck move there as well.

San Francisco has tons of start ups all over the place. We have our Twitter who’s doing quite well and hasn’t gone public yet, but I’m not sure how they’re making their money other than getting rich investors to toss money at them thinking they’ll make it work one of these days. MySpace on the other hand which isn’t SF based, does or rather did have an office in SF where they just had to lay off everyone because they aren’t a cool start up anymore.

Just as our government has become polarized on the left and right so has the workplace. You have unions that support unskilled laborers with high pay and good benefits, then you have startups who support highly skilled laborers for little or no pay. We need something in between what San Francisco needs is a work meritocracy. If you’re good at what you do you should be paid for it. If you’re not good at what you do then you should be paid less or not at all and lose your job. Work efficiently and produce more at a higher quality means you are more valuable to your company and are a more commercial commodity. Let’s move back to that way of life.