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Cemetery Strike Heads Into Second Week

April 6, 1985

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Bodies awaiting burial have piled up by the dozens at mortuaries in the San Francisco area as a week-old strike by cemetery workers continues with both sides saying a settlement is still far off.

Caught in the middle are bereaved families who find themselves holding funerals, then waiting to say their final graveside farewells.

″The public, except for the odd one, they seem to be very understanding,″ said Con Dennehy, a striking worker at the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland.

Still, funeral directors say the walkout at 19 cemeteries is making a difficult situation worse.

″It’s hard, it’s difficult, not to complete a funeral,″ said Jim Sullivan of the Sullivan and Co. Mortuary in San Francisco.

The 180 gravediggers, gardeners and other workers represented by Cemetery Workers and Greens Attendants Union Local 265 walked off the job March 28, almost a month after their contract expired on March 1.

Mortuaries handling funeral arrangements for people whose families want them buried at the cemeteries in San Mateo, Santa Clara, Alameda and Contra Costa counties said they are embalming the bodies and storing them on their premises. Some report they have collected a dozen or more but no firm figures were available. In 1971, 1,800 bodies went unburied until the end of a four- month strike.

″It would be impossible to give an exact figure on the number of unburied bodies since the strike started,″ said Arch Monson, president of Halstead & Co., one of the metropolitan area’s largest funeral homes. ″I think certainly no more than 100,″ he said Saturday.

Area morticians have been through similar situations in the last 14 years as cemetery workers have struck three times, with the 1971 strike requiring funeral homes to finally rent warehouses for the backlog of bodies.

″We have ample space to wait for however long it takes,″ said Richard O’Hara, manager of San Francisco’s Evergreen funeral home, adding that about 30 percent of his customers are finding non-union cemeteries for burials.

Sullivan said most families are understanding. ″I think people know that these things go on,″ he said.

But the walkout has angered some, and for Jews, whose religious tradition dictates that burial be held within 24 hours of death, it is a particular problem.

″It’s a tragic matter,″ said Rabbi Michael Samuel. ″Some people wanted to dig a plot on their own, but the union leaders indicated a threat of violence.″

″What can you do except say we’re extremely sorry,″ Joan Toomey, a union spokeswoman, said of angry calls to the union office.

A key concern of workers is a two-tier wage system allowing management to pay new workers $75 a day for 18 months before giving them top scale of $100. The union also has demanded pay hikes of 5 percent to 10 percent, while management has offered a 40-cent-an-hour increase.

″We’re not heartless people. We’re out there to make a living like everyone else,″ said union member Mike Gerrans.

He and others in the union want to improve their image, and be seen instead as gardeners, plumbers, carpenters, painters and machinery operators performing very skilled jobs for low wages and lower prestige.

John Cantwell, attorney for the property owners, said they are ready to resume contract talks as soon as the mediator sets a date.

Federal mediator Reginald Bravo reported Friday that neither side has asked for his help, but he was trying to get them both together over the weekend or on Monday.

However, union business agent Fred Kotler said he doubted bargaining would resume that quickly. ″They’re (management) still asking for concessions we’re not willing to make,″ he said.