“I think like a tree,” Teamsters 856 Member Michael Kyelberg says of his approach to landscaping. “You have to go from the ground up. The trick is the roots. They join together to create a network to withstand stress and resist break down,” he explains.
Kyelberg and his fellow Teamster landscapers are charged with caring for and maintaining the three acres of flora that beautify San Francisco’s biggest tourist attraction, Pier 39.
“I love the flowers the most,” said 856 Shop Steward Melissa Wagner. “They go from nothing to an explosion of color!” Wagner said, adding that plants tend to grow very quickly at the Pier thanks the relatively warm weather and mild climate. “Just in the span of one weekend, you can see so much growth.”
Wagner, who previously ran her own landscaping business, joined the Pier 39 team nearly three years ago after she grew tired of the seasonal nature of the work.
“I was looking for something steady, and to find out this job was union was amazing,” Wagner said.
She quickly became an active 856 member at the urging of her brother, who is in the Laborers Union in Oregon, and sat on the bargaining team for the latest round of contract negotiations.
“With a union, there’s a community and respect. There’s someone to go to when you have a problem,” Wagner said. “I wanted to participate so that I could speak up for my co-workers, many of whom have a language barrier, making it difficult for them to advocate for themselves,” she said.
Nervous at first, she said came to enjoy the bargaining process and called it “fascinating”. Last month Pier 39 Teamsters ratified a new four-year agreement that includes wage increases, tightens up language, and includes provisions for retirement security.
856 members at the Pier are not just limited to landscapers, they also conduct housekeeping and other maintenance duties for the waterfront destination, which sees an estimated 10 million visitors annually.
“We’re also in visitor services – I’ve gotten really good at giving directions,” jokes Wagner. “And you see a lot of interesting things, sometimes things you can’t unsee,” adds Kyelberg.
This summer, the landscapers added sunflowers to the assemblage of blossoms, creating striking yellow giants that jut out of the planters lining the San Francisco Bay. Kyelberg inspects one of the larger yellow blooms. “See all the seeds in the center? Each seed is actually its own flower, connected to another flower, to make up the large center.” Collective power, naturally.