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Former Bowl Workers Recall Union Days

Tuesday October 14, 2003

Pro-union shoppers at the Berkeley Bowl Sunday tied colorful balloons to their carts to show their support of workers who will be voting Oct. 30 on whether to certify the union many of them have been working tirelessly to organize since early May. 

A favorable vote would create the first union contract at the store since its move to the new location—but it wouldn’t be the first time the Bowl sported a union label. 

Berkeley veterans who knew the old Bowl—located across the street in a converted bowling alley—might remember that for a brief stint in the 1980s, workers had a contract through the same United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) now running their organizing effort—albeit through another local. 

The store was much smaller then, with 40 to 50 employees compared to the 250 it now employs. 

Many in the current organizing drive said that since the days of the old union and with the Bowl’s rapid growth, a whole new string of problems has developed which have pushed them to organize. 

According to one employee who worked at the Bowl before the move, store workers have always needed a union. 

Jose Mena, a former Bowl employee who now works at Andronico’s on Solano Avenue, said the Berkeley Bowl has always put business first and employees second. 

Mena, who worked 60-hour weeks at the old store for three years just after the original union left, said the work environment then was high-pressure and unfriendly. 

“I worked so many hours but was always told I was slow,” said Mena. 

In those days, he said, the store’s employees, though fewer in number, did have perks like full health care coverage. Mena said he finally left because he was not being paid enough and was working too many hours. 

“The owner said he would give union wages, but it never happened. And raises? They came whenever the boss wanted instead of on a schedule like with a union,” said Mena. 

Shelton Yokomizo, another former Bowl employee who now works for a union store, disagreed with Mena about the atmosphere at the store but said he was also forced to leave because he needed a retirement plan that included full health coverage—something the Bowl was unwilling to provide. 

“It was nice because it was a smaller store,” said Yokomizo. “For example, all the employees used to take breaks together and the owner’s parents used to bring in food for us. I enjoyed every minute of it.” 

Yokomizo, unlike Mena, saw the opportunity to work long hours as a perk. He said that, at the time, the store’s structure was more fluid. Employees could show up after or before their scheduled start times so long as the work got done and they put in the necessary hours. 

But Yokomizo, who suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol, said he had to find work at a union store because he already had several years with a union and only needed a few more to receive the most comprehensive retirement package. Now 60, he said he couldn’t have afforded to wait to see how the new Bowl developed and whether or not management would pay for his health care plan. 

Like other employees at the old Bowl, Yokomizo voted to decertify the union after its first contract expired because he felt the store was friendly and workers didn’t need a union. 

Mena said that even though Yokomizo might still think positively about the store and the long hours, he was being duped by the store’s image. 

“That’ s not fair to Shelton after he worked there for over twenty years,” he said in reference to the Bowl’s refusal to provide a benefit package. “It was a nice store, but they still needed to treat everybody better.” 

Both Yokomizo and Mena said they are happy at the union stores where they currently work. Mena said his wife recently had a knee replacement that would have cost him $64,000 without the union’s health-care plan—which required him only to make his regular monthly copayments. He said he is guaranteed a raise after a set number of hours with no questions asked, something he said never happened at the Bowl. 

At the new Bowl, pro-union workers said that if the representation vote passes, they hope all the issues both old and new will disappear and that the store will continue to thrive.