The firing of a veteran Berkeley Bowl produce department worker and pro-union activist sparked a brief walkout Sunday, effectively shutting down the store for fifteen minutes.
Arturo Perez, 56, was fired Friday from his position in the store’s produce section for what he and other employees are calling unfair and invalid reasons.
Berkeley Bowl management declined to comment on the incident.
Perez said he was fired for theft because of his purchase of four bags of marked-down garbanzo beans last Wednesday evening.
Along with other employees at the Berkeley Bowl, Perez has been trying to organize a union at the store since early May. He charged that the battle of the beans was an excuse for management to fire him because he has been one of the most outspoken participants in the drive and one of the leaders among the workers in the produce section.
“They were waiting for an excuse to fire me,” said Perez. “They were always watching me.”
Perez said that, instead of stealing, he was only participating in a common practice where employees are able to purchase discount produce the night before if goes on sale in the store.
Finding a box of garbanzo beans earmarked for the discount table, he said he took four bags and asked another employee to make an accurate and fair appraisal and re-price the bags. Supervisors are usually in charge of creating the markdowns but Perez says there wasn’t a supervisor on duty that night.
Perez, who has worked at the store for over two years, had helped mark the discount produce in the past, so the employee told him to go ahead and make his own markdown. Perez made the reduction, following what he says is standard procedure for calculating the discount.
Thursday was Perez’s day off and when he returned to work Friday he said he was questioned about the incident, served with his last check, then escorted off the property.
Perez, who has five children and a sick spouse, said he was shocked about the accusation.
“I’ve never stolen anything in my life,” he said. “In the two years I’ve worked at the Berkeley Bowl, I’ve never done anything wrong. I’ve never been late. I’ve never missed a day, even when I was sick.”
Perez’s dismissal was not the first since the organizing drive began. Chuck McNally, another pro-union activist, was fired earlier in the year for what campaign workers say are also unfair reasons.
Eric Freezell, another produce section worker, said Perez’s actions were fair and followed standard practice whereby employees have the first chance to buy reduced produce.
“This has happened a million times. It’s common practice for employees to buy produce from the bargain section,” Freezell said.
According to workers, management held a meeting with the produce employees on Thursday during which they said they had discontinued the policy where workers would have access to discount produce the night before it hits the shelves.
Berkeley Bowl’s decision to fire Perez outraged other employees, who on Sunday—the store’s busiest day—staged a 15-minute walkout at 5 p.m., effectively shutting the store down. All but three of the cashiers walked out, along with several employees from other departments.
Workers handed flyers explaining the walkout to customers waiting in line, clocked out one-by-one, then proceeded outside.
Once outside, several held up signs reading, “Where is Arturo?”
“We’re not going to sit back and let them do something so cold-hearted and calloused,” said Cory Abshear, one of the cashier who walked out. “I think we have run a pretty clean organizing campaign but they came at us with their fists flying. We wanted to show them they we could cripple them. If they think they can wear us down one by one they don’t understand we have a lot more in us.”
Many customers standing in line said they were initially disgruntled until they learned why the employees were walking out. Some customers wrote pro-union comments on the back of the flyers, then dropped them in the store’s comment box.
“I like the Berkeley Bowl, I think it’s a great community organization,” said Laura Anderson, one of the shoppers at the store during the walkout. “But I was supportive of the workers because I respect the work that they do. I think the employees are the core of the store. It can’t really function without them.”
The union working with the employees, the United Food and Commercial Workers Butcher’s Union (UFCW) Local 120 is currently helping Perez find another job. In the meantime, Perez says he is going to take time off to settle down.
“I feel terrible,” he said.
For several days after he was fired, Perez stood outside the store but off store property, talking to workers who are supportive of the drive.
“The other workers are incredible. Seeing them out there in support was better than getting $20 an hour,” he said.
Abshear, from the cashier line, said that workers have pledged to stage an even larger walkout if another employee is fired. Cashier Kevin Meyer summed up the sentiment among many of the workers surrounding Perez’s dismissal. “This proves why we need a union,” Meyer said. “We’re going to show them that we have power too.”