Many of the campaign posters plastered on Berkeley telephone poles and staked into lawns this political season, no matter the political slant, have a common thread: They’re made in Emeryville.
While local politicians battle for supremacy Tuesday, Bel Aire Displays appears likely to remain king of the political printing business for years to come.
The political sign dominance of the company, which moved to Emeryville from Berkeley 28 years ago, is emblematic of the decline of Berkeley’s union print shops, and the city’s inability to profit from its political energy.
This year, five candidates for City Council and five ballot measure campaigns will spend over $12,000 at the Emeryville shop, according to campaign filing statements.
What is the secret of Bel Aire’s success? It is the only unionized print shop in the East Bay and San Francisco that makes waterproof signs.
“We don’t have much competition,” said Chris Shadix, owner of Bel Aire, a silk screen printer that specializes in large signs that can withstand rain. Shadix said his biggest rival for political silk screen prints is more than 100 miles away in Oakdale.
Since July, the shop on Hollis Street has stayed open seven days a week making signs for candidates from San Francisco, San Mateo and across the East Bay.
There are other silk screen printers in the East Bay, but none of them are union, and in Berkeley politics, few things are more important than a union bug on campaign signs.
“We’re old-timers, we know better than to go anywhere that wasn’t union,” said Councilmember Betty Olds. Both she and her opponent, Norine Smith, had their lawn signs made at Bel Aire.
While Bel Aire has cornered its share of the political printing market, Berkeley’s major union printer has seen its market share decline.
Inkworks, which specializes in smaller pieces like campaign mailings and environmentally friendly inks and dyes, used to be the printer of choice for Berkeley progressives, said Bernard Marszalek, Inkworks’ manager of marketing. But this year, according to candidate campaign filings, only Max Anderson used the shop that once did work for former progressive mayoral candidates Don Jelinek and Loni Hancock, but now usually only does work for the Green Party.
A chief contributor to the company’s loss of political business has been the rise of political consultants that bundle services and sometimes outsource print jobs to preferred shops, often outside of the Bay Area.
“A lot of jobs are going to Los Angeles or Nevada,” Marszalek said. “Mailers are a major part of political printing and they can be sent from anywhere.”
Although Berkeley was never a center for the Bay Area printing industry, the city has lost several union shops over the past two decades, said David Blake, owner of Turnaround, a local graphic design and book production company.
In the last couple of years, two Berkeley union print shops, Thunderbird and New Earth Press (represented by the International Workers of the World) both closed down.
“In the ‘70s and ‘80s unions gave up on printing,” Blake said. “Employees settled for lifetime job security in return for stopping union recruiting.”
Also, he said, the Graphic Communications International Union doesn’t certify one-person shops because they offer little union dues.
Dan Watanabe, owner and printer at Berkeley’s Salmon Graphics, said that about 10 years ago he was denied union certification for his one-person shop.
“They said you have to have enough employees for dues,” said Watanabe, who was looking to break into the business of political printing.
With few local options and higher prices at union shops, a few local candidates have forsaken the prized union tag.
Laura Menard, a candidate for City Council District 3, opted for Gilman Street Press, a family-owned non-union Berkeley printer. “Inkworks was about three times more expensive and I’m running a low-budget campaign,” she said. “I know I broke the rule, but there’s something to be said for using a Berkeley business.”
Others to choose non-union printers this year included City Council candidates Barbara Gilbert and the Committee For Measure R, whose signs promoting an initiative to loosen Berkeley’s medical cannabis laws were made in Dublin.
Norine Smith, who did have her campaign mailings printed at Copyworld, a non-union shop in Berkeley, said she struggled with the decision. “I’ve never been inside a Wal-Mart or Kmart because they’re not union, but the union shops were just too expensive.”