Ballard Smith fires union food employees at Sports Arena

You guys are blocking traffic

— 'I was on the speakerphone with Ballard Smith, Ron Hahn, and one of the Shihadeh brothers. I said, 'What do you me mean, "fit the mold"? You got hot dogs, you got nachos, you got popcorn - what the hell else are you selling there?' All of a sudden I heard in the background, 'We don't want any more of these old, fat, slow women.' Somebody snatched the receiver and quickly said, 'He didn't say fat. He didn't say women. He didn't say old.' "

Speaking is Jef Eatchel, 38, secretary-treasurer of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, Local Number 30. The subject of his telephone conversation was the loss of jobs, or more precisely, the termination of 86 Local 30 members who were serving food and beverages at the San Diego Sports Arena. The reality is that 86 workers with an average of ten years of service were told on April 30, 1996, that their jobs were gone. All sides agree to that. But no further.

One year later I am sitting in Eatchel's office at union headquarters on Juniper Street in San Diego. The man is quick. He thinks fast and he talks fast. He has a tanned, clean-shaven face, short brown hair, brown mustache, and vibrant green eyes. According to a "Petition to Compel Arbitration," which was filed by the union in the United States District Court, Southern District of California, "Under a lease from the City of San Diego, San Diego Entertainment, Inc., operates the Sports Arena and grants the beverage concession license. In September 1985, S.D. Entertainment granted Premier an exclusive license to sell food and beverages at the Sports Arena." The license was later extended to April 30, 1996.

"Premier Food Services, Inc., and Premier Food Services Management Group entered into a collective bargaining agreement with the union with a duration of December 15, 1995, to June 30, 2000." Ballard Smith and George Karetas were officers, directors, and the sole shareholders of the Premier corporations.

"On September 24, 1993, Ballard Smith entered into a written license agreement with S.D. Entertainment. While still an officer, director, and major shareholder of Premier, Smith obtained the New License Agreement but obtained it in his own name.... Smith purportedly obtained the New License Agreement on behalf of Premier but actually obtained it in his own name and then transferred it to Arena Foods with no compensation to Premier for that asset.

"On April 30, 1996, Premier/Smith terminated all eighty-six employees of Premier who worked at the San Diego Sports Arena; and Arena Foods/ Smith hired new, non-union employees at substantially reduced hourly rates of pay and without medical benefits..."

The union lost this petition to compel arbitration. According to Dennis Hayes, the local's attorney, "The court felt that since Karetas was not part of Ballard Smith's plan, but instead, was in effect, a competitor, the court could not apply the alter ego or mere continuance doctrines."

That's what one lawyer says. Lawyers say anything. Also, the above is but the first baby step into a swamp of charge, countercharge, lawsuits, and arrests. The more interesting question is, What would you do if you felt responsible for 86 7- or 8-buck-an-hour jobs?

As Eatchel said to Ballard Smith, "Look, you have to understand this ain't going to go away. I am never fucking going to go away. If I'm still breathing, you got problems, because what happened was wrong."

When Ballard Smith moved to Idaho in the fall of 1996, Eatchel placed ads in the Ketchum newspaper alerting the 3000 residents to the events that occurred in San Diego. He has sued. He hired a truck and installed large billboards on either side. The signs read, "86 People Were Fired from Their Jobs at Ron Hahn's Sports Arena for the Price of a Beer! Ballard Smith/Shihadeh Bros. Refuses to Negotiate. Boycott the Sports Arena Until We Get Our Jobs Back!" The truck was then driven to Ron Hahn's neighborhood in Rancho Santa Fe, toddled onto the Rancho Santa Fe Country Club, downtown La Jolla, around to Clairemont, and could often be seen parked in front of a Little Caesar's restaurant.

Eatchel has lobbied city council for an ordinance that would require new contractors on city-owned property to retain current employees for 90 days. He has leafleted certain areas of town: "Ballard Smith (with his fraudulently purchased extension) entered into a contract with three brothers (Shihadeh), who also franchise with several Little Caesar's Pizza outlets, to take over the food and beverage at the Sports Arena. The Shihadehs brought in all their own employees at minimum wage and no benefits...." And lately, Eatchel has introduced street theater into the conflict - dressing up as the Grim Reaper and handing out leaflets at the Sports Arena that read, "86 Jobs Dead." "It was about six weeks ago." Eatchel reaches into a desk drawer and retrieves color photographs of six women arranged in a semicircle modeling chocolate-brown monk robes, hoods, and rope belts. Four of them are holding candles. People are smiling an embarrassed smile the way you do when you're the first one to arrive at a costume party. "They look like a real rowdy group, don't they?" Eatchel laughs.

"We had 50 people at the Sports Arena. We met underneath the marquee in the parking lot. We have videotape of me doing my normal speech. I tell our people, 'We are not in here to cause problems. When you hand a flier out to somebody, this is how you do it.' " Eatchel hands an imaginary piece of paper to an imaginary Sports Arena patron. " 'Enjoy yourself tonight. Here, I've got something for you to read.'

"So, we handed out leaflets, and after a while we went inside the arena to a food concession stand. We made a semicircle around the stand with three feet in between us so customers could get in and out. We stood there just like this." Eatchel solemnly stands up from his desk, hands clasped below his waist, a sorrowful grimace slapped on his face.

"The event was a San Diego Gulls hockey game, and there was a reggae band playing that night. We went from concession stand to concession stand. Everybody was dancing, having a good time. By the way, we also bought tickets; we bought 50 tickets. "Since we had seats, we went to our seats, and during intermissions we'd come down. Well, first of all, four security guards walked us to our seats. One of the guards came up to me. 'Your people are harassing our customers, and we want it to stop.' I said, 'You know, we don't harass your customers. You know it and I know it. You show me who's harassing them.'

"After the first period, we went downstairs. Some security guards bashed into some of us, knocked into others. We were standing at the concession stands, and they'd push into us, trying to get a reaction. I told everybody to 'move to the side. We're not here for this.' And they kept doing it.

"Then they came around and said, 'You guys are blocking traffic. We can't get emergency gurneys in and out if we need to.' That was a new one. I said, 'If you take a look, our people move when anybody walks by.' And then they wanted to usher us back to our seats. I said, 'No, we're going to make a couple trips around the inside ring.' "'Well, you can't do that.'

"I said, 'Really? Look at all these other people walking around the ring.' So, some of us went one way, some the other, and we did a couple of loops. Security was getting mad. They started giving us, 'Why don't you guys get a real fucking job,' and 'You guys will be lucky if you don't get fucking knocked out.' And the whole shit was going on.

"We went over to the reggae band and asked, 'Could you guys play the Macarena reggae style?' And the band said, 'Yeah, we can play it.' So, we're all doing the Macarena," Eatchel smiles, "that little happy horseshit dance, right? Because, most of us were women. We had 50 people there, 38 were women. There were 5 or 6 guys and some little kids and one woman brought her grandchild. So, some of the guests started dancing with our girls. It's a hockey game, there's a million guys there, and our girls are dancing the Macarena, so some guys start dancing with them. Security came up and barked, 'You can't dance with the customers.'

"I said, 'The customers are dancing. Why can't we dance?' The guy was mad." Eatchel mimics a drill sergeant's voice, "'You have to stop, and you have to go sit down.' " 'We are not going to sit down. We have the right to walk around just like everybody else.'

"And then he got in my face. 'Don't fuck with us tonight. We're not in the mood to be fucked with. You better get out of this arena.' I got in his face. 'Give me a break. You guys are upset because we're having fun, and the customers are asking what's going on because of the costumes. You guys are really starting to push our people. We don't like it.' He went, 'Well, I get reports that your people are stepping on security guards' toes and pushing them.' I said, 'Look around, it's a bunch of women.'

"Now, customers were starting to ask, 'What's going on?' Some of our people who were passing out fliers earlier had stowed what they had left in their little outfits. One person reached down and pulled out a flier and handed it to somebody who asked for it. Someone else saw that and pulled out a flier and handed it to a patron. A security guard ran up to me. 'Jef, you know you can't pass fliers out here.' So, I go over to our people and say, 'Put the fliers away. We can't pass fliers out in here, you guys know that. Please put them away.'

"'Yeah, but the guests asked me...'

"'If the guest asks, write his name down, and we'll mail him one.' And as I turned around I saw one of the security guards going around trying to rip fliers out of people's hands. There was a girl standing next to me, her name is Anita Wallingford, and she was talking to somebody. A security guard grabbed the flier that was in her hand and yanked down on it. Her reaction was to go like this." Eatchel demonstrates by standing up and then swiftly leaning over as if someone had hit him in the stomach. "The guard grabbed her by the jaw and lifted her off the ground. She dropped her fliers. Her 14-year-old son was listening to the music. He turned around and screamed, 'Let go of my mother!' The security guy went boom, boom and gave the kid a right. I saw it, and now three other security guards came over and grabbed this little 14-year-old kid. They lifted him off the ground and moved him toward the steps that go underneath the arena.

"Then Anita yelled, 'That's my son, that's my son, let him go.' I said, 'Anita, don't worry, I'll take care of it,' and I turned and got hit so fucking hard that it got really bright." Eatchel laughs again. "I haven't been hit like that in a long time. It staggered me. Then I got hit again. Boom.

"Everybody was going downstairs, so I said, 'Come on, let's go, we're going to get the kid.' A member of our group, Chad, was standing by the steps. Here comes four security guards carrying the kid, and Chad stepped forward. 'Stop! What are you doing with the kid?' And he got a forearm in the face. Chad grabbed onto the rail, and two more security guards came up. Then this guy with a bald head kicks Chad in the back of his legs, and he goes down.

"A security guard seized him by the feet and pulled him down the rest of the steps. His head went bang, bang, bang, bang, bang on the steps all the way down. A little guard tried to kick him as he was going down. I got over there and said, 'Hey, what the fuck do you guys think you're doing?' And boom, this little guy hit me in the neck. Another security guard grabbed me, and then a bunch of our people came over, and the guards realized they were outnumbered and ran down the steps." Eatchel chortles. "We were yelling, 'Give us back the kid! Give us back the kid!' And they said, 'No. We want all of you out of here.' I said, 'Fuck you, man, we ain't leaving. You got my people in there. I want them back.' Then they started screaming that we were disrupting the hockey game and announced, 'We called the cops.' In the meantime, I'd found a phone and called the cops.

"The cops showed up, about four of them. The security guards were saying we tried to run over them. One cop pulled me aside, said, 'Okay, I want to tell you something. We've taken all the security guards' statements. We're arresting these two. We're taking the kid to juvenile, we're taking him [Chad] to jail, and you and your people are going to have to leave, or we're going to arrest all of you.'

"I asked the cop, 'Whose statements did you take?' He replied, 'We took the security guards and one of the people from the Gulls.'

"'Okay, let's see. You took their statements, you don't want to hear ours, and you're going to arrest two of my people. I got two security guards I want to arrest. I'll put them under citizen's arrest.' "

And away we go. Last Friday, Eatchel and his crew, again dressed as Grim Reapers, were back at the Sports Arena handing out leaflets.

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