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The price of being PC

Stream Weir
Tuesday September 17, 2002

When Berkeley needs to buy an appliance, it shops around. But not for the lowest price. 

Companies such as General Electric and Office Depot are blacklisted because they are not socially or politically responsible, according to the City Council.  

Because Office Depot refuses benefits to employees’ same-sex domestic partners, city leaders bypass the store. 

GE does business with the U.S. Department of Defense. But under the city’s no-nuclear resolution, the city does not. 

How much do these political statements cost the city? Officials will have that sum by the end of the year.  

The city is now tallying how much it spends buying from “acceptable vendors” who are not necessarily the cheapest, said Heather Murphy, Berkeley’s acting purchasing manager.  

Under city law companies must declare whether they qualify for Berkeley’s shopping list, by Berkeley’s rules, so costs associated with assessing a company’s political and social correctness are small, Murphy said. 

The only real cost of imposing the sanctions, according to officials, is the money lost when a blacklisted company offers a better price than any other vendor.  

The city has sanctions on about a dozen companies. 

Council’s most recent cause for a sanction was to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Last week, council passed a special purchasing resolution preventing the city from doing business with a company that drills for oil in the pristine coastal plain. 

Although drilling in the Arctic wildlife refuge is illegal, Congress is currently rethinking the matter. 

U.S. Public Interest Research Group representative Athan Manuel said resolutions like Berkeley’s are an invaluable tool in the struggle to protect the refuge. 

“We’re trying to bring home the message that drilling in the arctic is a risky business proposition,” said Manuel, who worked with Councilmember Dona Spring to bring the resolution to the council. 

West Hollywood passed a parallel resolution. A number of other cities – including San Francisco – are considering similar resolutions, Manuel said. 

The city’s Murphy agreed that local resolutions serve a worthwhile purpose. She said management at Office Depot is negotiating a change in its spousal benefits policy that would provide for same-sex partners. 

“They’re feeling the pressure,” she said. 

Oakland and San Francisco also have sanctions against the office supply chain. 

Murphy said some of Berkeley’s most effective sanctions are the benefits sanctions and those against companies that fail to pay a “living wage.” 

Companies that contract with the city for more than $25,000 of services must pay employees a minimum wage of $9.75 an hour with benefits or $11.37 an hour without benefits. The ordinance also applies to businesses that lease city land. 

City officials are threatening Restaurant Skates by the Bay with a lawsuit because it is not paying its employees a livable wage, the city says. 

Other city restrictions prohibit: using tropical hardwoods and old-growth redwood in construction; trading with companies that do business in the Tibet region; and buying from companies that help the government build or stockpile nuclear weapons.