In a surprise move, the Berkeley Bowl grocery store has temporarily withdrawn plans to build a new store and warehouse in West Berkeley, raising questions about whether the politics of a union battle at the store are affecting efforts to expand.
Berkeley Bowl, known for its fresh produce and long lines, was scheduled to go before the city’s Planning Commission Wednesday night to pitch the new project. But last week the grocer’s Berkeley-based architect, Kava Massih, sent a three-sentence letter to the city’s Planning Department stating that “the owners have decided not to pursue the project in [the originally proposed] form.”
The withdrawal comes amid a two-month-old union drive that has pitted workers, calling for better pay and benefits, against management, which has argued that organized labor could spoil the “family” atmosphere at the store. The grocer, in the midst of the battle, has consulted with Jackson Lewis, a law firm specializing in “union avoidance,” according to the firm’s Web site.
The fight has damaged the reputation of the grocer in a pro-union town and raised questions about whether local leaders will approve a new grocery store as long as management opposes the union.
“There might be some resistance from the city if the Bowl is perceived as an employer that doesn’t treat its employees well,” said Planning Commissioner Rob Wrenn. “I’m disappointed that the Bowl feels they have to hire an anti-union consultant and can’t make a decision without outside interference.”
But Chuck McNally, a chief union organizer, said he does not oppose plans for the new supermarket. A new grocery store could mean quality food for an underserved neighborhood, more jobs for Berkeley residents and more union members, he said.
Several prominent Berkeley liberals have also come out in favor of the project—including Mayor Tom Bates, City Councilmember Margaret Breland, whose district includes the proposed site at the corner of Ninth and Heinz streets, and progressive stalwart Kriss Worthington, who also sits on City Council.
“It’s an important community service that West Berkeley urgently needs,” said Councilmember Worthington. “I don’t see any contradiction in strongly supporting the Berkeley Bowl for financial success and expansion and simultaneously supporting the workers’ right to have a union.”
Berkeley Bowl general manager Dan Kataoka declined to speak at any length about the decision to withdraw the grocery store and warehouse project but said the union issue “may be a factor.”
Store manager Larry Evans also said political concerns may have played a role.
“That very possibly could be a factor,” he said. “It’s a very political town.”
The store’s original proposal called for a grocery store of 44,000 to 45,000 square feet, according to the city’s planning department, far exceeding the current limit of 20,000 square feet. Berkeley Bowl was scheduled to go before the Planning Commission Wednesday night to ask for a rezoning that would allow the larger store. Kataoka said Berkeley Bowl may now scale back plans and propose a grocery store that falls within the existing zoning code.
The mayor discouraged any downsizing of the project.
“I think that would be too bad,” said Bates, who argues that the city should not weigh the union issue in making zoning decisions on the new project. “I think we need a full-size market there.”
Workers have called for a “card check” method of unionization, which would allow a neutral third party to simply verify that a majority of the grocery store’s 250 employees had signed union authorization cards, electing to join the Oakland-based United Food & Commercial Workers Butchers’ Union, Local 120.
But Evans said management would exercise its right to demand a secret ballot election. The process, administered by the National Labor Relations Board, can take years and Bates has asked both sides to agree to a speedier secret ballot election outside the auspices of the NLRB.
Kevin Meyer, a cashier active in the union drive, said a quick election would help prevent burnout among union organizers and would give Jackson Lewis, the grocer’s law firm, less time to develop an anti-union strategy.
“The more time they have to do that, the more effective their campaign might be,” he said.
Evans said Berkeley Bowl has consulted Jackson Lewis—which has 20 offices across the nation, including one in San Francisco—only because the grocer had used the firm in the past to defend against a sexual harassment suit and for other unrelated issues.
“[The owners] had no idea they had this horrendous reputation for being a union-busting company,” he said.
Robert Lazo, an attorney with the San Francisco firm of Employment Lawyers’ Group, which represents workers in job disputes, said Jackson Lewis is “one of the most pre-eminent law firms to represent management in these campaigns.”
“The Berkeley Bowl did hire the big guns,” he said.
But Lazo, who has locked horns with Jackson Lewis on a number of occasions, said he had respect for the firm.
“They’re pretty decent guys and they are quite effective,” he said.
Bates, who has met with both sides in an effort to resolve the conflict, said the Yasudas appear close to dropping Jackson Lewis and hiring a less controversial lawyer.