Berkeley Bowl Workers Throw Out Union




Councilman Max Anderson calls Berkeley a union town. But after the vote yesterday by employees at Berkeley Bowl to get rid of their union, there are about 200 fewer union jobs in the city.

“The company is pleased with the results of the election,” said Berkeley Bowl manager David Craib. “[The employees’] voices have been heard. This is their decision. They’ve made it clear.”

But exactly what the former union members were saying by their vote depends on who you talk to. At around 8 p.m., after the votes were counted, a group of grim-faced pro-union workers gathered on the public sidewalk outside the popular store known for its fresh produce, organics, and ready-to-eat fare. Shop steward James Livingston reported the 99 to 74 vote for decertification to the Express. “I don’t know — I thought we had it — I just don’t know,” he said.

Standing next to Livingston, another worker put the loss down to hard economic times. “A lot of workers are stressed with money problems,” he said.

Although Jason Lee, the produce department employee who led the decertification fight, declined to comment for this story, it's clear from the pro-decertification flyer: “Union Free Works for Me,” that economics was at the heart of the campaign to break the union. “Ask yourself what is the union doing for you that you need to pay 50 dollars or more a month in dues,” the flyer stated, further noting that last year the union raised initiation dues from $300 to $500. It also claimed that benefits were better before the union came in.

Shop steward Lajos Balazs said management played on the workers’ economic needs, including telling workers that if they didn’t have to pay union dues, then that money could go into a retirement account. “It was easy to pick up decertification signatures,” Balazs said. “They told the workers what they wanted to hear.” He said he supported the union because it had brought in the principle of progressive discipline (formal steps before a worker is fired); health care benefits for all, including part-timers; more holidays; and extended vacation time for long-term employees.

Bowl management said the drive to decertify the union was employee-driven, but UFCW spokesperson Mike Henneberry had harsh words for management. He said the bowl hired a “union buster” to run the decertification campaign. The Berkeley Bowl “is not a Berkeley institution; this is Berkeley destitution,” Henneberry said.

Bowl manager Craib declined to respond to charges leveled at management.

The Berkeley City Council weighed in on the union’s side, passing a resolution June 22 eight to one, with Councilman Gordon Wozniak abstaining, to “oppose Berkeley Bowl’s management’s effort to reduce employee benefits and management’s efforts to decertify the union.”

The strongly-worded resolution authored by Anderson, said, in part: “the Berkeley Bowl is engaging in classic anti-union activity including firing, threats and coercion, which mirror the worst union-busting tactics, in an effort to deny employees’ ability to have a fair voice in the conditions of their employment …”

Anderson told the Express that management held meetings where employees were a “captive audience” to an anti-union message. “The role of the owners has always been to resist unionization,” he said, recalling that when the employees first wanted a union more than five years ago, the employers engaged in anti-union activities that the National Labor Relations Board considered unfair labor practices. The NLRB held a new election at the time, which established the union.

Community organizer Harry Brill, who helped organize a pro-union rally at the store, said the decertification might be a sign of the times. “There’s a general decline of unions,” he said. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a unionized labor force in 2009 of around 12 percent down from around 35 percent in the 1950s. Just 7 percent of workers in the private sector belong to unions. “The Berkeley Bowl fell victim to a general mood in the country,” Brill said, adding that he fears a backlash against pro-union workers at the bowl. “I’m afraid of a bloodbath,” he said.

The decertification vote “doesn’t just represent the 200 workers” at the Oregon Street store, Livingston said. Another 200 or so workers at Berkeley Bowl West, open for about a year, will be impacted. If the union had won at the Oregon Street store, it would have stepped up efforts to unionize the second store, Livingston said.

Henneberry said the union would be gearing up for a new election at the Oregon Street store in one year’s time. “But we’ll start laying ground work right now,” he said. “There are a lot of union votes in there, despite the intimidation, threats, and harassment.”