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Workers organize new union

By Judith Scherr Daily Planet Staff
Friday February 09, 2001

Perhaps labor martyr Joe Hill’s not dead after all. 

The International Workers of the World, better known as the wobblies, announced Thursday they have organized a union at Berkeley’s Community Conservation Centers.  

The 16 new union members sort and sell the recycled goods the city collects from its citizens, then sells the goods for re-use.  

The dozen or so recyclers who work for the Ecology Center have been members of the IWW since 1989. 

“We voted yesterday,” said CCC employee Ron Wynn. Wynn does a little bit of everything at CCC – he drives a forklift, sorts materials and works shifts overseeing the recycling center at Dwight and Martin Luther King Jr. ways.  

With a union contract, there will be “better pay, more benefits for us and our families, and better working conditions,” he said. 

The employees had wanted to form a union the easy way, by card check, with the workers filling out cards authorizing a union. If a majority completes the cards, then the employer must accept a union. But the employer must accept the card check process. 

Jeffrey Belchamber, CCC general manager, didn’t. So the union had the National Labor Relations Board hold a vote Wednesday. With one employee absent, all the workers voted for the union. 

Belchamber said he didn’t see the need for a union. “I think that I’ve been a fair manager,” he said. Union negotiations will take time away from his other duties, he said. “I hope people will be reasonable and educated,” he said. 

Steve Ongerth, branch secretary for the IWW, contends that the CCC does not pay its workers a “living wage,” a minimum wage mandated by the city for businesses that contract with it, but Belchamber strongly disagreed. “They don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re ignorant,” he said. 

Berkeley’s Finance Director Fran David said the city does not have staff to track businesses to oversee which ones comply with the ordinance. The council decided that “essentially enforcement will be complaint driven,” she said. 

Ongerth boasts that the IWW, founded in 1905, is a radical union. Organizers are unpaid, so union dues are low he said. They organize everyone within one industry, so that unions are not in competition with each other.  

As for the long history of the union – with which singer-songwritier Joe Hill was an organizer – it’s “one of the first to call for an eight-hour day,” he said. The union opposed the Chinese exclusion act, fought for child labor laws and was “one of the first unions to organize woman,” Ongerth said.