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Stadium Workers Say Union Solidarity Doesn’t Extend to Millionaire Players

March 9, 1995

Baseball fans often ask Tim Ewert how he cuts the ballpark grass at Milwaukee’s County Stadium to make those graceful lines of checkered green in the outfield.

But if the major-league baseball strike still is going on when the regular season opens early next month, there will be no question how Mr. Ewert and other workers deal with a line outside the Milwaukee Brewers’ ballpark: They’ll cross it.

Representatives of the grounds crew, the ushers and the food-concession workers all say their members will go to work whether the players’ union puts up a picket line or not. ``I have a family to worry about,″ says Mr. Ewert, whose $6.56-an-hour wages abruptly were cut off when the baseball strike began Aug. 12, halting last season’s schedule seven weeks early.

As each twist in the long battle between baseball players and owners is dissected by sports writers and fans, thousands of stadium workers at 28 ballparks in the U.S. and Canada play a tough position: left out. Stadium workers in Milwaukee, for example, say neither the owners nor the players bothered to contact them last summer after the strike cut off 25 home games.

Eugene Orza, associate general counsel for the Major League Baseball Players Association, says that while he hopes delivery drivers represented by the Teamsters union would support the strike, the players don’t expect stadium workers to stay home. ``We have no interest in costing anyone their jobs,″ he says.

Mr. Orza says the union may have to enlist other people to walk the picket line because of the threat of violence, including one last Monday in which a striking player, whom Mr. Orza won’t name, was told that he would get a ``bullet through the heart.″

Many stadium workers find it hard to support either side in what St. Louis ticket-taker Kenneth Hicks calls a battle of ``millionaires against billionaires.″ Mr. Hicks, who is also a business representative for some 350 Theatrical Stage union employees at Busch Stadium, says as many as 60 of his members face layoffs next month because of the strike.

The estimated 15,000 to 20,000 baseball stadium workers in the U.S. and Canada range from ticket-takers to mascots such as Bernie Brewer, who slides into a giant beer mug after each Brewers’ home run. Some are employed by the owners or their companies; others by outside vendors. Most are part-time workers, and almost all are seasonal employees.

They include retirees, students and inner-city residents. And even in a strong union town such as Milwaukee, many disagree with those who say organized labor should stand behind the players.

Usher Phyllis Purdoff says she turned around at a restaurant one recent morning to thank a stranger who said he had sent in money for his season tickets. ``If I didn’t need it, I wouldn’t work,″ says Mrs. Purdoff, a retired telephone-company worker, of her $5.40-an-hour job with the Brewers.

A Milwaukee union official echoes her feelings. ``You’re not even talking about being in the same universe with the players and the owners,″ says Vincent Gallo III of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union, which represents some 200 food-service workers at County Stadium. ``Our people are hustling to make a few extra dollars to survive.″

Indeed, Frank Nobile, a Milwaukee Brewers usher, says he lost $625 last year because of the strike _ money the 65-year-old usually uses to buy Christmas gifts for four children and nine grandchildren. ``The ushers are mad and disgusted,″ says Mr. Nobile, who is chief steward for about 400 ushers and ticket-takers represented by the Service Employees International Union in Milwaukee.

There’s no doubt stadium workers and baseball players are in different leagues when it comes to compensation. Although they don’t all work each game, the 400 ushers and ticket-takers employed by the Brewers collectively earn about $300,000 in a season _ one-quarter of the average $1.2 million salary for one baseball player in 1994.

Unlike players, ushers have to buy their own uniforms _ $200 for each uniform for men and $180 for each uniform for women. And they only get reimbursed for cleaning if the Brewers make it to the playoffs _ something that last happened in 1982.

As Milwaukee Brewers owner and acting baseball commissioner Bud Selig crossed the country in search of an agreement with the players in recent weeks, talks hadn’t even started on contracts that expired more than two months ago for his ushers and grounds crew. Although talks begin soon, the Service Employees union says it has been told that there isn’t money for raises this year.


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