Haight Supermarket Fight Raises Bay Area-wide Issues

by Randy Shaw on July 12, 2006

The closing of the full-service, unionized Cala Foods in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district has prompted a neighborhood battle over the future use of the site. Longtime neighborhood builder John Brennan purchased the property, and plans to construct between 50 and 60 condominiums above a new full-service supermarket. Opponents of the project believe the proposed 176 underground parking spaces will create a traffic nightmare, and many prefer affordable housing to condos (though Brennan rents out his condos). But the bigger question involves the plan for a non-union Whole Foods supermarket to replace Cala. As the Bay Area’s unionized supermarkets fight to survive against non-union competitors, Whole Foods expansion could come at the expense of the industry’s living wage blue-collar jobs. On the other hand, approving Whole Foods keeps a full-service market in the neighborhood and creates a great opportunity for a labor-community union organizing campaign.

The closure of 37 Bay Area Albertson supermarkets, coupled with the closures of Cala Foods and Bell Markets, represents a dramatic loss of middle-class blue-collar jobs. Just as unionized autoworkers paid the price for management’s failure to build fuel-efficient cars in the 1970’s and hybrids in recent years, unionized grocery workers have lost jobs in the above chains to management’s inability to change with the times.

While Walmart and “big box” stores have hurt unionized supermarkets in much of America, they have not been a major economic factor in San Francisco, Berkeley, or Oakland. Unionized full-service markets in these cities have instead lost business to farmers markets, chicken, fish, and meat specialty stores, and to produce businesses like Berkeley’s family-run Monterey Market.

The current debate over the proposed Whole Foods in the Haight follows the end of a two-year fight over the construction of a new Berkeley Bowl in West Berkeley. Most businesses near the proposed market had argued that the traffic impact studies were insufficient.

The supermarket union argued that the Council should not approve the new Berkeley Bowl unless the owner agreed to accept a union card-check in lieu of an election. The Berkeley City Council ultimately approved the project without the card-check condition, because federal law prevents local governments from conditioning project approval on the issue.

This means that neither the San Francisco Planning Commission nor Board of Supervisors can require the aggressively anti-union Whole Foods to accept card-check at its proposed new location in the Haight. This leaves city officials with two options: approve the store and hope that it does not facilitate the closure of nearby unionized markets, or deny the project and eliminate the only full service supermarket from the neighborhood.

My sense is that community support for a full-service supermarket will override concerns about excessive parking and the construction of market-rate rather than affordable housing.

On the parking issue, the project eliminates an unsightly street level parking lot and provides a level of parking that any newly built supermarket would require. People go to full service supermarkets to purchase more than can be carried by hand, and no such business will open these days without adequate parking.

While it would have been great if nonprofit affordable housing groups had aquired the Cala site, they did not. But a project involving only 52-60 condos for rent (7-12 of which could be affordable) will not alter the demographics of the Haight Asbury neighborhood. Progressives once applauded the building of housing on top of other uses as a smart land use strategy, and have long criticized surface parking lots on major thoroughfares; by eliminating this lot the proposed project would appear to create a far more attractive streetscape than currently exists.

The real problem with the project, the expansion of Whole Food’s non-union empire, could potentially represent an historic opportunity. Imagine if Haight residents conditioned their willingness to shop at Whole Foods on management’s agreement to either card check or an unopposed secret ballot election. The still politicized neighborhood could unify around this cause, and give the Whole Foods workers the community support they need to support a unionization drive.

The unionization of Whole Foods would be a national story, putting the Haight-Asbury on the map in a way that has not occurred since the 1960’s. This could make even opponents of the proposed project happy with the ultimate result.

Send feedback to rshaw@beyondchron.org

Filed under: Archive