Union Ousted at Berkeley Bowl: What’s Next?

by Harry Brill on June 28, 2010

The workers at Berkeley Bowl on Oregon Street just voted by 99 to 74 to decertify the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), despite the Union’s record of achieving major gains for the store’s employees. The Union conducted a vigorous campaign to win employee support. In addition to union staff speaking to workers on a one-on-one basis, delegations from other unions and a very large one from the community spoke with management. In a low key non-confrontational approach we told employees that we support them and the union. We explained that food purchased in a unionized supermarket tastes a lot better. Those who know something about the history of labor relations at Berkeley Bowl should not be completely surprised at the outcome.

When the Union attempted seven years ago to organize Berkeley Bowl, the employees voted overwhelmingly against unionization. Significantly, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) required Berkeley Bowl to accept the union.

The reason is that the NLRB found that a fair election was not possible because of management’s unfair labor practices. Those were better times, when workers who became jobless could find other work.

Not so now. No question, the employees were visibly scared. The political atmosphere in the store was intimidating.

Supervisors were walking around all day with big “Vote No” buttons, but “Vote Yes” buttons were nowhere to be seen. From a labor perspective, this was not a pretty picture.

Okay, labor lost an important battle, which imposes additional burdens on the union. In fact, due to loss of revenue, the UFCW may have to retrench. And other stores may also try to decertify their unions. What, then, should UFCW be doing?

Legally speaking, the union at Berkeley Bowl cannot have another election for a year. Meanwhile, it will be doing a lot of groundwork.

But here’s the issue that the Union must pay more attention to. From what I have heard from several Berkeley Bowl employees, the union needed a more visible role on the ground. For example, one progressive and politically experienced employee complained that when Berkeley Bowl raised the health insurance premiums that employees must pay, the union only filed a grievance.

For more visibility and effect, holding a protest rally would have been a good idea. More generally, these stores should have stewards who are actively in contact with the members, continually engaging them, asking what their concerns are and working with them to resolve the problems they have on their minds.

In short, it would be useful for unions to move from a model in which issues are too often handled within a legal framework, and frequently by experts, such as lawyers — to a social movement model, in which union members are more vigorously encouraged to participate in shaping their day to day work lives.

I am delighted that UFCW has recently hired as the head organizer someone who shares a social movement perspective. Also, allies are not just very important, but urgent.

To the credit of the Union, it solicited the involvement of the East Bay community. For example, the East Bay Labor and Community Coalition, which I helped organize, brought over 30 community activists to the Berkeley Bowl to let the employees know that we support them and their union.

But let us acknowledge that even when a union does all the right things, it can still lose. However, although this model of community and union cooperation doesn’t guarantee victory, the absence of this alliance could make winning in the present economic climate highly improbable.

For the employees, decertification is not the answer because it leaves them more vulnerable to their employers. Instead, they must play a greater role, not a diminished one, in union related issues. Union stewards can help facilitate this process.

A more active and vigorous alliance of working people, union staff, and the community would improve the odds for labor tremendously.

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