Organized labor's top priority for the Obama administration, the Employee Free Choice Act, may be dead in the water in Washington, DC. But something like the act, with its simplified "card check" election that union organizers prefer, is alive and well in Berkeley.
An agreement between management at the new Berkeley Bowl West grocery store and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 5 reached just two weeks before opening day in June had union leaders crowing. With the agreement, the union won a promise of complete "neutrality" on the part of Berkeley Bowl management while an organizing drive is under way at the new store. The agreement reads in part that Berkeley Bowl management will "not make disparaging comments about the union, its leadership, or union representation nor shall representatives of management attempt to influence employees in any way."
According to UFCW Local 5 spokesperson, Mike Henneberry, the typical organizing campaign is met with the strongest resistance legally possible, such as "captive audience" meetings where employees are compelled to listen to hours of anti-union propaganda. So management neutrality is a big deal.This agreement comes on the heels of a long and difficult history between the union and the Bowl. An ugly battle was waged at the Oregon Street Berkeley Bowl in 2005. "The company committed so many unlawful acts against its own workers [the] charges were upheld by George Bush's NLRB," Henneberry said. Since 2005, UFCW Local 5 has represented hundreds of workers at the original store and is likely to get the votes they need to represent Berkeley Bowl West as well in the coming weeks.
"This is really a model of how labor relations questions of representation should be exercised throughout the United States," said Ron Lind, president of UFCW Local 5, as he thanked the Berkeley City Council for its support the day the agreement was publicly announced. "Much of this is similar to what is contained in the Employee Free Choice Act, and more."
Indeed, things might not have gone so smoothly for the union if it hadn't been for the willingness of Berkeley's elected officials to step into the fray. The city council passed a resolution supporting a "card check" election for the new store long before it was ready to open for business. More recently, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates was instrumental in getting the two sides to sit down together.
"Berkeley Bowl is a great business in our city," said Bates, adding that the new location is a regional asset that is attracting shoppers to Berkeley from throughout the East Bay. "I really didn't want to see the new Berkeley Bowl start off on the wrong foot." Bates said he convinced the owners of the Berkeley Bowl, Glenn and Diane Yasuda, that despite their reluctance it was in everyone's best interest for the new Berkeley Bowl to be a union shop.
"We at Berkeley Bowl have put aside our personal feelings regarding the procedure used in allowing employees to decide the union issue primarily because we do not want labor problems to disrupt the city, our community, our customers, and our employees," said Dan Kataoka, a manager with Berkeley Bowl, in his short statement announcing the agreement reached with the union. Representatives with the Berkeley Bowl declined to comment for this story beyond remarks already given publicly.
"Our position has always been to allow our employees to decide whether or not they wanted representation," Kataoka said. "If they want the union, we will support them. If they do not want the union we will support them. It is their decision, as is rightly so."
The agreement allowed for at least ninety days, which have now passed, for the new store to get up and running before the union would begin its organizing campaign. The agreement also included a 45-day window for UFCW Local 5 organizers to try to gather a majority of card check signatures of the workers to vote on union representation. That window closes at the end of this month.
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