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Labor Fight Seen as Un-Berkeley

The 'supermarket with a heart' in a city known for liberalism faces a vote today on a union. Bitter charges fly.

October 30, 2003|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

BERKELEY — No shopping experience exudes this city's left-leaning ethos quite like the Berkeley Bowl.

High-end chefs and hippie bus-dwellers alike rate it a favorite for its mounds of low-priced organic produce. Employees are welcomed with tattoos and piercings on proud display and pants hanging low. The City Council in a resolution last week praised it as "a cherished and valued part of the Berkeley community." But now the mom-and-pop market that has been called a "supermarket with a heart" is confronting a corporate-sized labor dispute.

A vote to form a union is scheduled today. Charges of illegal behavior against management are flying. In liberal, pro-union Berkeley, everyone from regular customers to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is weighing in.

And in this granola lovers' haven -- where customers can buy 17 varieties of grapefruit or help themselves to heaps of bulk organic Quinoa flakes -- nothing will be quite the same.

"Here you have an institution that's very Berkeley," said Lori Schack, a 38-year-old mother of two who loaded shopping bags into her hatchback last week. "It's got the community bulletin board. It's got organic food. So why are they opposing unionization so much?"

A spokeswoman recently hired to improve management-employee relations said the Bowl is playing by the rules.

"I know there's a perception that we don't really care what's going on with the employees and that we want people to vote a certain way, but that's not the truth," said human resources business partner Lea Hyke. "Everyone will respect the outcome of the election, whatever it is."

Workers pressing for union representation want more equitable pay and a consistent review process for the store's 250 employees -- who speak seven languages. They hope union rules will end what they charge is favoritism at a store that has simply outgrown its personal touch.

"There's no security in our jobs, and there's no security in our wages," said checker Irami Osei-Frimpong, 26. "People assume that since cashiers have tattoos and are wearing T-shirts, then everything's hip and groovy, but that's not necessarily the case.... It's not a 40-person store anymore. A lot of people get forgotten. And that's too bad."

Others counter that unionizing would spoil the spirit of the store founded by owners Glenn and Diane Yasuda 26 years ago. The Yasudas have accommodated the schedules of students. They have let aspiring musicians pick their shifts around band practice. And they have hired cart-pushers and baggers with little work experience -- and in some cases a breezy attitude toward showing up on time.

"What you want to do is maintain that attractive quality that Glenn had when he started way back when," said cashier Tim Lucas, 46, who, like other checkers, must memorize 3,300 product codes. "You don't want to squash it with a lot of union rules."

Besides, Lucas said, in recent weeks the drive already has prompted better communication and improved health-care benefits, indicating that there are other ways to solve the company's problems. (Union organizers say the benefits are a plus for workers but question the pre-vote timing and note that, without a union, the perks could just as easily be taken away.)

The Yasudas opened the market in a former bowling alley and quickly earned a loyal following. Then -- as now -- Glenn would rise between midnight and 2 a.m. to make the rounds of produce markets in Oakland and San Francisco.

The quality and variety of the fare -- and the reasonable prices -- made the Yasudas community heroes in Berkeley.

"There's no other combination like that," said Kay Spena, 54, who arrived at the Bowl in a black sun hat last week to buy salsa, sweet onions, and red and yellow peppers.

By the late 1990s, the cramped Berkeley Bowl was bursting at the seams with customers. Meanwhile, residents were railing against city plans to welcome a corporate store to a vacant, 44,000-square-foot Safeway nearby. They begged for a bigger Bowl. The city stepped up, waiving certain permit fees to make it happen.

"We wanted to help them stay in Berkeley and expand," Councilman Kriss Worthington said.

But with growth came chaos. Some workers say they have never met the Yasudas. A small group began exploring unionization last year, said United Food and Commercial Workers organizer Jeremy Plague.

Organizers had hoped for a quick unionization process, in which supporters would sign cards to be tallied by a neutral party. But after an estimated 70% of workers signed the cards, Plague said, management rejected that method in favor of a secret-ballot election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. Relations soured fast.

Managers circulated fliers discouraging workers from signing the cards, warning that a strike could jeopardize their pay, benefits and jobs. They have pointed to the supermarket strike in Southern and Central California as an example of the pain that could lie ahead.

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