The California Unemployment Appeals Board ruled recently that Arturo Perez, a produce worker at Berkeley Bowl who was fired last September during an unsuccessful union organizing drive, is eligible for unemployment. Perez who has a charge pending with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) accusing the Berkeley Bowl of firing him illegally, can now use the ruling by the appeals board to boost his claim.
Perez, who worked in the produce section and was a vocal advocate for the union says he was fired for union organizing. He claims the store wrongly accused him of stealing garbanzo beans to justify the move.
If Perez wins his claim with the NLRB, the Berkeley Bowl might have to offer him his job back along with back pay for the months he has been out of work.
“They made me feel like a criminal,” said Perez. “Everyone knows they fired me for no reason.”
Back in September when Perez was fired the Berkeley Bowl refused to comment. The store was closed Monday and attempts to contact a representative failed.
Perez’s charge is only one of several Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Butcher’s Union local 120 filed against the Berkeley Bowl after the failed union organizing attempt. According to Mike Leong, Assistant Regional Director for the NLRB office in Oakland, all the charges are currently being reviewed and a decision could be issued within the next couple of weeks.
Currently, the NLRB is gathering evidence from both sides. If they think there is enough evidence, the NLRB will file a complaint against the Berkeley Bowl, which will have the option to create a settlement or allow the case to proceed to a hearing.
According to Tim Hamann, president of local 120, the Unemployment Appeals Board decision for Perez was “long overdue.”
“In almost any one of these fights the company will fire someone,” Hamann said.
Hamann said he was confident the NLRB would decide in Perez’s favor.
“The [NLRB] is going to catch up to [the Berkeley Bowl],” said Hamann. “The Berkeley community is going to find out what kind of employer the Berkeley Bowl is. [Arturo] is one day going to walk back into work and he will have beaten the Berkeley Bowl at their own game.”
When Perez originally purchased the four bags of garbanzo beans in question, they were earmarked for the store’s discount table which employees have first shot at the day before. Because the supervisor in charge of the mark-downs had gone home Perez asked a fellow employees to mark the beans down to ensure a fair appraisal—a practice employees say is fairly common.
Perez, who had worked at the store for more than two years had marked produce down before and was told to go ahead and make his own markdown, which Perez did using standard procedures for calculating the discount.
The following day was Perez’s day off and when he returned to the store he was questioned about the incident and then served with his last check, after management informed him that they were firing him for stealing the beans. For Perez, who said he had never stolen anything in his life, the incident was shocking, upsetting and embarrassing.
The September incident also helped prompt a 15-minute walkout by store employees immediately after Perez was fired. The walkout succeeded in shutting the store down temporarily. Since then, Perez’s case has been singled out by Berkeley Bowl employees as exemplary of the tactics the store management used during the union organizing campaign.
After he was fired Perez continued to help employees organize even though he was banned from the store. He took some time off and then with the help of the union was hired on as a part time meat cutter at an Andronico’s store in San Anselmo, a 40-minute commute.
“It has nothing to do with my pride,” said Perez about the charge against the Berkeley Bowl. “The only thing I want are the right wages and benefits like everyone else in this country.”
Perez, who said he is trained to do a number of things isn’t worried about surviving but says he is sick of still having to struggle to get by after 39 years in the U.S. He says he is also pursuing the charge because he wants to see a contract at the store for his fellow employees who are still there.
“I’m not a rich man and I never will be, but what they did to me was bullshit,” he said. “The union won’t solve all the problems but it will help.”