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Trouble in Union City

A Staples Center concessionaire and its 300 fast-food workers are at odds over a contract, eight months before the opening of the Democratic convention.

Ogden Entertainment’s dispute over wages and benefits is the first labor-management strife at the $400 million sports and entertainment complex, where promises to be a “union-friendly” facility garnered the support of local labor for city subsidies and expedited permits.

More than 100 members of Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 11 picketed the arena before Bette Midler‘s December 16 concert to protest Ogden’s “foot-dragging.” The two sides, which last met formally three weeks ago, are scheduled to resume talks the first week in January. A petition for action with 200 signatures was presented to management after last week‘s protest but drew no immediate response.

Ogden regional manager Lon Rosenberg, who also supervises Ogden’s operations at the L.A. Convention Center and the Greek Theater, insisted, “We are committed to negotiating a union contract.” He would not discuss specific issues, or a time frame for progress.

“We‘ve been getting the runaround for two months,” said cashier Gerardo Lozano, a member of the negotiating committee.

While Ogden recognized HERE as bargaining agent for its Nacho Camachos and Pizza Hut staffs after an October card check, it has yet to respond to the union’s proposals regarding medical and dental coverage and sick leave, Lozano said.

Shrinking shift lengths are a bone of contention, said Lozano, who also works at Dodger Stadium -- for a different food franchise -- and gets a flat fee per event under a HERE contract there. At his interview for the Staples job, Lozano recalled, management talked about full-time jobs with benefits, bragging of 230 events and promising steady work. However, he said, the six-hour shifts offered in October -- which management called a “getting on our feet” phase -- have been replaced largely with shifts of four hours rather than eight. At $8.75 per hour, these $35 shifts are nothing you can live on, Lozano points out. “They get more than $8.75 for two orders of Super Nachos,” added one employee, “so you‘d think they could come up with some benefits.”

All other employers at Staples have reached agreements with unions, said HERE’s chief negotiator Karine Mansoorian. Janitors and ticket-takers signed up with Service Employees Union International; stagehands are represented by IATSE. Levy Restaurants, whose 500 employees service the arena‘s sky boxes and exclusive high-end restaurants, signed a contract with HERE in November, giving workers premium-scale hourly rates when their shifts are short, Mansoorian said.

Broader corporate considerations may be factors in slowing Ogden’s negotiating pace -- the company recently lost a bid to renew its concession rights at the L.A. Convention Center to rival Aramark, and is currently up for sale, Rosenberg confirmed. The concessionaire‘s hard bargaining strategy, union researcher David Koff suggested, might also be related to an unfavorable revenue split in its agreement with Staples Center.

With the Democratic convention looming over the horizon, Staples Center officials have every incentive to ensure a peaceable labor climate. In a February 1998 letter, center president Tim Leiweke assured Democrats that “involvement of unions in . . . construction and operation was a priority from day one.” L.A. Convention 2000 -- the hosting consortium headed by developer Eli Broad, mayoral adviser Bill Wardlaw and mogul David Geffen -- committed in writing to “use all of its resources and good offices to intervene in work stoppages involving union labor” and stated that all principals “must agree to binding arbitration” to resolve any disputes.

But with the convention eight months away, the center’s management is standing aside for the moment. “We believe both sides are earnest about negotiating,” said spokesman Michael Roth. “We know there is this [arbitration] agreement, but we‘re not at that point.”

Nor are Democratic-convention execs ready to weigh in publicly. “We called the Staples Center to express our concern, and we’re hopeful and confident that things will be worked out,” said Luis Vizcaino, press secretary to convention CEO Lydia Camarillo. Vizcaino declined to speculate on the Democratic party‘s response if the dispute continues through next August’s convention, although crossing picket lines would be unthinkable for many, if not most, delegates.

Ogden is also at loggerheads with its employees at Anaheim Pond, who have been working without a contract since August and recently walked out in the middle of a sold-out Santana concert. Janet Jones, of HERE Local 681 in Orange County, said the two sides are only 3 percent to 5 percent apart on wages but that substantial differences remain over medical coverage for part-time workers.