Casting off

New Alcatraz ferry service leaves unions, environmentalists, and city officials fuming on the dock
Hornblower Yachts assumed control of the ferry service to Alcatraz Island on Sept. 25. As the new crew cast off the dock lines, spurned union workers — some 30-year veterans with the former contractor, Blue and Gold — rallied with supporters at the entrance, asking passengers not to board the boats.
Two union-friendly visitors from Sydney, Australia, ripped up their tickets and demanded refunds. "We don't agree with what they're doing to the workers," one said, while in the background Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Tom Ammiano took turns with the bullhorn, also offering their support to the workers.
"All of our colleagues on the board are not going to stand for it," Peskin said to the couple hundred laborers gathered on the sidewalk. "We're going to stand with you and march with you."
Terry MacRae, CEO of Hornblower, expressed little concern about the boycotting tourists and the rally at his gate. "I suspect there's plenty more people who want the tickets if they're not going to use them," he told the Guardian. Visits to Alcatraz peak this time of year, with a couple thousand people turned away every day when tickets sell out, according to National Park Service spokesperson Rich Wiedeman.
The NPS decision to grant the lucrative, 10-year contract to Hornblower over Blue and Gold has resulted in more than just what some are calling the largest union layoff in San Francisco waterfront history. The story also has an environmental angle as slick as an oil spill and a nasty landlord-tenant tussle.
"The port and I are extremely concerned with how Hornblower has conducted itself," City Attorney Dennis Herrera told the Guardian, referring to the company's artful dodge of city and state permitting processes. "They've focused more energy on sidestepping public oversight than complying with it."
Despite infuriating two leading San Francisco institutions — unions and city planners — MacRae has managed thus far to avoid too much of a stir by keeping another critical local constituency off his back with a well-played "green" card.
When NPS put out a request for proposals in 2004, three companies submitted bids for Alcatraz: Red and White, a local charter and bay cruise company that ran the service when it first started in the ’70s; Blue and Gold, which took over Red and White's boats and unionized crew in 1994; and Hornblower Cruises and Events, which runs charter and dinner boat cruises from five California ports and is a subsidiary of a larger, $30 million company.
When Brian O'Neill, superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, announced last year that Hornblower won the bid, union activists immediately challenged the choice. Mayor Gavin Newsom, Peskin, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, and both of California's US senators expressed concerns about the decision. Neighborhood group Citizens to Save the Waterfront filed suit. Environmentalists, however, were elated.
For the first time since being passed by Congress in 1998, the Concessions Management Act applied to the bid for Alcatraz. In addition to forbidding the Department of the Interior from favoring incumbent contractors, the act also outlined new criteria for awarding contracts that included a mandate to improve environmental quality in national parklands.
"Bluewater Network has been advocating for more than five years for a solar- and wind-powered ferry for San Francisco Bay," said Teri Schore, a spokesperson for the local environmental group. She added that diesel vessels in the Bay Area account for more pollution than cars and buses combined. "We've been talking to every ferry operator on the bay, and we also knew that the Alcatraz contract was up. We thought it was the perfect application."
Hornblower's MacRae wrote a provision into his bid that within two years of taking over the Alcatraz service, the company would build and launch a ferry to run on a combination of solar, wind, and diesel power.