Ben Davis signs worker contract: S.F. garmentmaker ends yearlong dispute over minimum wage

The Ben Davis Co., one of San Francisco's oldest unionized clothing manufacturers, has agreed to a contract covering about 100 immigrant San Francisco garment workers, ending a yearlong dispute over wages and benefits, advocates for the employees said Wednesday.

The two-year contract, ratified by workers last week, provides raises of $1 to $1.50 per hour for most workers, taking hourly pay to between $8.50 and $10.50, said Jason Oringer, a spokesman for Unite Here, the union representing the employees.

The contract also scrapped piece-rate pay schedules that rewarded workers for high productivity but docked their wages when they fell behind, Oringer said.

Workers, including fabric cutters, sewers and inspectors, agreed to pay 10 percent of their health care costs. The company had asked them to pay 50 percent, Oringer said.

Ben Davis, a union operation since 1935, and employees at its Third Street clothing factory had been at odds over hourly wages, vacation and health care costs. The conflict revolved around San Francisco's minimum wage increase, which in February raised the bottom rung of pay in the city to $8.50 from $6.75.

Frank Davis, Ben Davis' owner and the grandson of its founder, said publicly earlier this year that if the firm were to continue manufacturing in the city, he needed to cut employee benefits to offset wage increase and rising health care costs. Davis did not return calls for comment Wednesday.

In March, negotiations broke down over terms of a contract that had expired in September 2003. In July, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution urging the company to renew the union contract.

Workers also won support from the Chinese Progressive Association and Oakland's Sweatshop Watch, which called for a boycott of Ben Davis products, including work-wear pants, shirts and overalls that feature a "union-made" label with a smiling gorilla face.

"In the midst of the garment industry getting hit so hard, it's important to show that there are certain businesses supported by the community," said Alex Tom, who helped organize the boycott campaign on behalf of the Chinese Progressive Association.

Most of the Ben Davis workers are first-generation immigrants from China and Mexico.

Of an estimated 3,000 garment jobs remaining in San Francisco, about 400 are unionized, Oringer said. The work has mostly been sent overseas as firms search for cheaper labor.

Unite Here and worker advocates said the Ben Davis contract could serve as a model in a sector known for substandard wages and long hours.

E-mail Jenny Strasburg at jstrasburg@sfchronicle.com.

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