Workers of the Garden, Unite!


If the NBA’s low-salary players weren’t considered deserving recipients of last weekend’s charity game in Atlantic City, another group that labors in the nation’s arenas should have been deemed worthy. Ushers, ticket collectors, food vendors, and countless other such workers are faced with dwindling opportunites to earn money this holiday season— and at Madison Square Garden, they are engaged in labor talks of their own.

To date, the Garden has stood idle on 14 would-be game nights lost to the NBA lockout. The ongoing dispute has cost some Garden workers as much as 50 percent of their usual income at this time of year. And many face the threat of losing health insurance and other benefits if the season is completely canceled.

Public information about the workers has been scarce. Garden officials have declined to discuss the issue and company rules forbid employees from speaking to the press about such matters. Despite the risk, several members of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 100, which represents some 600 Garden employees, agreed to (anonymously) talk to the Voice about how the lockout is affecting them.

Wage and benefit losses due to the lockout vary according to job titles. Suite attendants who rely on generous tips from big-spending guests have been some of the hardest hit. One veteran suite waiter says he generally earns his best tips during Knicks games because the clientele tends to have more more upscale tastes than Rangers fans. “It’s sushi and shrimp cocktail versus pretzels and hot dogs,” he said.

Tips are fewer for those who work the aisles selling food and drinks, but one Local 100 veteran estimates that he has lost nearly $100 for each canceled Knicks home game. And the union estimates that the average concession stand worker will have lost some $750 in wages by the end of December. HERE cooks and warehousemen, who earn a higher hourly rate, stand to lose about $3500 in wages if the season is canceled.

Although these workers may be hard-pressed to find much in common with millionaire NBA players, they too have spent much of 1998 sitting across a negotiating table from their employer. Local 100 has been in contract talks with the Garden since May, but unlike their brethren in the NBA players union, salary issues have not been the major sticking point. At issue is how Garden management is handling the lockout— the union has asked for assurances that canceled games won’t cost them health insurance or other benefits that are tied to the number of hours they work. Although the Garden has pledged to credit them for some lost hours, union negotiators remain skeptical about their promises. They cite actions during six Billy Joel concerts this month, when the Garden subcontracted some catering work normally done by Local 100 members to a nonunion firm. And on December 13, Joel’s performance replaced a canceled Knicks game, giving employees a chance to make up some of their lockout losses. But at least four union members were shut out of that opportunity.

The Garden workers who talked to the Voice expressed surprisingly little resentment toward the players. “It’s the NBA that any union member should be angry with,” said one concessionaire. However, he added, the players “should keep perspective [and] think about the people whose lives they are affecting.”

A question from a reporter was the first that Patrick Ewing, president of the player’s association, had heard of the Garden employees’ labor battle. Ewing encouraged Local 100 members to “stay strong and fight for what they believe in.” Fellow Knick Allan Houston, meanwhile, had a stranger, if more optimistic, suggestion. “I empathize [with their situation]. Hopefully they can get with our union and get some of our benefits.”