Election Section

Commentary: Berkeley Honda Employees Didn’t Get a Fair Offer By Donna Mickleson

Friday October 21, 2005

In his Oct. 4 Daily Planet commentary, “New Owners Did Not Fire Honda Workers,” Chris Regalia is technically correct. All that is required to follow his argument and absolve the new Berkeley Honda management of responsibility for the plight of the former Jim Doten workers and the continuing picket line and demonstrations is to enter the realm where angels dance on the heads of pins. 

On May 22, Jim Doten wrote a letter to all his employees, saying that he had the “unpleasant task of having to terminate all employees,” that they had the right to apply for the continuation of their jobs, and adding that he believed “you will find the new owners very pleasant to work with.” 

The Machinists’ Union, which represents most of the dealership’s workers, had made a modest request, that the new owners retain the workforce for 100 days on a trial basis and evaluate how they perform. It seems clear to me that if individual performance were really the issue, the offer would have been accepted. Instead, they were fired. That in a formal sense Jim Doten rather than Tim Beinke fired them misses the point completely. In order to consummate the sale, Doten did the dirty work for the new owners. This obviously was the arrangement. 

Indeed all employees were given very brief interviews. Of 26 union members, 15 were not rehired, and 11 were. Many of those who were retained decided to leave and strike for two reasons: out of solidarity with their longtime work-mates now without jobs, and because they believed they were training their $12-an-hour replacements, fresh from technical school. They felt that soon they risked being left out of work, with their union severely weakened or gone as well. 

Regalia implies that those who were not rehired were not “top performers” or “efficient.” What about the 31-year veteran Gold Level Honda-certified mechanic who just happened to be the shop steward of the union? Is that a mere coincidence?  

As for those wonderful 401-Ks that Beinke unilaterally substituted for the defined benefit pension plan Doten workers formerly had: There are some people--evidently Regalia is one--who might prefer a 401-K, where income rises and falls with the stock market. But many people, myself included, prefer a dependable, guaranteed amount. In any case, those offered work at the New Berkeley Honda weren’t given a choice. 

I spoke recently with one of those offered a job at $3-an-hour above his former wage. He was three years short of eligibility for a pension worth retiring on under the old plan, and he asked if they would be willing to put in writing that he could work long enough to qualify for the equivalent status in the new 401-k retirement package. He was told no, they couldn’t do that, and the subject was quickly changed. 

As for the “corporate citizenship,” “family” atmosphere and contributions to the community touted by Regalia and in Berkeley Honda’s recent half-page Planet ad, I reply that decency and fairness begin in one’ s own back yard. 

And I refer you to Raymond Barglow’s wonderful Daily Planet letter (Oct. 7): “Let’ s make that community an authentic one and give the fired workers our support”--regardless of who, technically, did the firing. 


Donna Mickleson is a Berkeley resident.