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SF's Biggest Manufacturer Beats Union, Prepares to Leave 

Wednesday, Sep 16 2015
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If you drive south down Interstate 280 too quickly, or if you don't know where and when to look, you'll miss San Francisco's biggest factory.

At the single-story building on Pennsylvania Avenue, tucked between the freeway and the aging Potrero Hill housing projects, Trayer Engineering builds heavy-duty electrical switches for utilities including Pacific Gas & Electric Company.

With roughly 90 employees working two shifts, Trayer is the biggest manufacturer in San Francisco, the Business Times declared last year (bike messenger bag maker Timbuk2 is second, with 60 workers). It's skilled labor — some of the switches are built to work underwater — and until recently, about a third of those workers earned union wages between $20 and $35 an hour with the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers Local 104.

Now, those workers are gone — as is the sheet metal union.

In January, the sheet metal workers walked off the job, the culmination of almost two years of fruitless negotiation over whether workers or the company would shoulder the rising costs of retirement and health benefits.

In July, the strike ended in total defeat. The union informed Trayer via letter that it was no longer representing any workers at the shop.

The walkout failed to sway management, who hired new non-union workers to replace the two dozen or so who chose to walk the picket line. (Trayer officials declined to say how much the new workers earn, but observers say it's certainly less than the union rate.)

It also failed to sway other workers. Trayer's electricians, union members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1245, committed what was once an unthinkable offense in labor-friendly San Francisco: They crossed the picket line, walking past a giant inflatable rat, emblazoned with their union's name in a vain attempt to shame them.

Now, flush with victory and a glut of work orders that has it "bursting at the seams," according to sales manager Skip Hoover — who says that the company has recently doubled its hours worked — Trayer is preparing to exit the city.

The 25,000-square foot warehouse, where Trayer has been in business since 1979, is for sale. The asking price is not disclosed, and there are some encumbrances on the land — John Trayer owns the family business, but his family's trust owns the building; the area is zoned for industrial use and could not be used for housing without a major zoning change — but with its proximity to the freeways, SF General Hospital, and the new hospitals and medical research firms in Mission Bay, the property is beyond desirable in San Francisco's adjective-defying real estate market.

"There are significant hurdles as it relates to the trust," says Scott Mason of Calco Commercial, who listed the property. "If it were a sale that could happen today, if it were as simple as 'sell it,' it would have sold 50 times already."

Officials with the San Francisco Labor Council and the Sheet Metal Workers did not response to requests for comment. But if Trayer does pull up stakes and relocate — the industrial areas around the Oakland Coliseum, in San Leandro, or in Hayward are the most likely destinations — the trend is clear: both manufacturing and union jobs are leaving the city and are unlikely to return.

This is happening everywhere. Nationwide, 9.7 percent of manufacturing workers are union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, down from 12.9 percent in 2004. (Nationwide, about 11 percent of all workers are union; if you omit the public sector, it's 6.6 percent).

There is very little manufacturing left in San Francisco, which simply does not have the available real estate. But if Trayer, already a majority nonunion shop, does exit the city, what's left will be very Silicon Valley: upscale messenger bags, bespoke clothes, and designer pottery — all nice things, all expensive, all made without the involvement of a trade union.

The earliest a buyer could expect to occupy Trayer's current location is next June, according to the building's listing. That's when IBEW 1245's contract with Trayer expires.

IBEW has about 20 workers there, according to union spokesman Eric Wolfe, who says that negotiations on that contract won't begin until next year. Wolfe is confident that Trayer will remain in business and will remain an IBEW shop.

One reason why IBEW is still there is that their contract specifically forbids the union from calling a strike. That's good for the company, which knows it can continue output uninterrupted. For the worker, whose only real leverage after threats and negotiations fail is the ability to strike, it's more complicated.

Individual IBEW members were allowed to choose whether or not to honor the metal workers' picket line. One worker chose to stand with his brothers in labor, Wolfe says.

He, too, is now working somewhere else.

Trayer may yet stick around in the city.

The company is on the lookout for an additional location, Hoover says, and could keep operating at Pennsylvania Avenue even if the company secures a larger space in the East Bay.

But it's certain that Trayer has outgrown San Francisco.

"We've had record sales," Hoover says. "This has been an extremely high growth year for the company. We need additional facilities."

As for the city's biggest maker of things making an exit, Hoover is philosophical.

"For us to be the largest manufacturer in San Francisco, that means the other largest left," he says.

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About The Author

Chris Roberts

Bio:
Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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