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Rat Monday, a Union Victory in the City’s Streets, Continues to Resonate Today

By Jacob Bourne | contributing writer

One of the numerous advantages modern union workers enjoy is a deep tie to a rich history of solidarity and defiance — especially in San Francisco.

One such notable moment in history occurred in the City on March 7, 1988, when as many as 6,000 building trades members took to the streets south of Market to protest ultra-anti-union construction industry trade association the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC).

Dubbed Rat Monday, the demonstration emerged from a grassroots word-of-mouth effort that rippled through the trades weeks before ABC leadership showed up at the Moscone Center in their “scab bus” for an industry convention they’d planned specifically to poke the San Francisco union bear. ABC’s delegates had hatched an overconfident scheme based on the notion that if they could establish a visible presence in America’s strongest union town, they’d score a foothold here and therefore have the entire U.S. construction industry sufficiently cornered.

But their plan included a crucial miscalculation. ABC leaders failed to grasp the strength of the invisible chain that’s always linked union members to their brothers, sisters, and siblings in the trades.

Unionists arrived at the Moscone Center in droves in the early morning hours on Rat Monday, forgoing a day of wages and leaving up to 80% of the City’s major construction projects on hold. They showed up with one common purpose: to drive ABC out of town with their bodies in the streets and their voices in the air shouting, “Scabs go home!” — and plenty of other slogans.

“It was a great day,” recalled IBEW 6 Assistant Business Manager Matt Bamberger, who was among the picketers who showed up for the protest. “We felt that ABC holding their convention at the Moscone Center was an assault on our strong union city.”

Indeed, press footage of Rat Monday captured one worker decrying ABC’s use of the Moscone Center — itself built by union hands — as a disgrace.

Another yelled, “San Francisco is a strong union town, and it’s going to stay! We’re not going to let anyone take bread from our mouths.”

The city’s supply of eggs couldn’t keep up with building trades members’ enthusiasm for pelting them at ABC leadership as they hurried through the convention center doors. Protesters were undeterred by a significant police presence that resulted in multiple arrests. SFPD issued a temporary restraining order as another 1,600 gathered for continued protests on Tuesday.

The ruckus ended when ABC was driven out of town early, its scabby ploy convention successfully smeared with constant — and often eggy — disruption, and it was all courtesy San Francisco’s hardcore working-class solidarity and union spirit.

It was clear that ABC had messed with the wrong city.

“ABC never came back,” Bamberger said. “I think they learned their lesson. They went home a lot earlier than they thought they would, with their tails between their legs.”

To this day, Rat Monday was the largest union demonstration Bamberger has ever witnessed in San Francisco, fueled by ABC’s unseemly reputation and tactics that were ultimately no match for union solidarity.

“They were trying to make it a point with their contracts to stop bidding in our area and to try to undercut our conditions,” said Larry Mazzola Sr., who’d served as an U.A. Local 38 officer and building trades leader for decades and who was also in the streets on Rat Monday. “We knew what they were coming for, so we let everyone know. All the business agents, managers and unions spread the word at meetings. Every worker started talking about it on jobsites.”

Many other union leaders showed up, including the then-head of the San Francisco Labor Council, Walter Johnson, who said at the time: “This protest is here because we’re sending a message out from San Francisco that construction workers are not going to become part of the disease that’s spreading across the country — low wages, no benefits, no pension. This is San Francisco, the Bay Area, Northern California sending out its message: We are not going to be defeated. The message is going to go out like a prairie fire.”

For Mazzola Sr., Rat Monday reflections come with a reminder that the fight never ends. The trades must continue to organize against threats such as the rise of prefabricated housing and politicians who might put other interests ahead of the welfare of San Francisco’s working men and women, he said.

And Bamberger was right: Ever since their humiliating defeat on Rat Monday, ABC has indeed avoided San Francisco like the plague. The City remains a union stronghold 35 years later.

Bamberger summed up Rat Monday by calling it an example of solidarity’s beauty on display that continues to reverberate with an implicit message for other would-be violators.

That message? Don’t come to our town with your nonsense.

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