Commentary: Is The Berkeley Honda Boycott A Just Cause? By Raymond Barglow and HARRY BRILL

Tuesday January 03, 2006

The strike at Berkeley Honda is nearly half a year old now, and still the new owners refuse to acknowledge the quite reasonable request that workers should be treated decently, and a union should be allowed to represent them. 

In his most recent commentary published in the Daily Planet, Berkeley Honda’s Chris Regalia argues that reducing the business at the auto dealership —which the strike has done quite effectively—harms the city, since the city depends on tax revenues from local businesses. He concludes: “You may not like business, but without thriving businesses a city cannot survive.” 

The question is, at whose expense will business at Berkeley Honda thrive? In return for the auto dealership’s tax contributions, shall we condone the dismissal of workers like Nat Courtney, a master mechanic who worked at the dealership for 31 years and whose only “misconduct” was that he served as shop steward of the union? Is it OK if a business busts a union, provided that the business pays its taxes? 

With respect to Berkeley Honda’s decision not to retain Nat Courtney and other master mechanics (who have been replaced by younger, lower-paid personnel), Mr. Regalia argued in a previous Daily Planet commentary that the National Labor Relations Board (NRLB) approved this decision, since the new owners: 

“According to the NLRB, made their hiring decisions without prejudice or discrimination. Call me silly, but could it be that those who were not offered positions might not have been top performers or as efficient as they would like us all to believe?” 

This is a false account of the NLRB ruling, which did not evaluate the competency of the dismissed workers, but judged only that there was no successor clause in the union contract that would have protected workers like Nat Courtney. The NLRB adjudicated this case on very narrow grounds, declining to examine the fairness of the workers’ dismissals. We should note that the NLRB has been making extremely anti-labor decisions since 2004, when the staggered terms of Bill Clinton’s three liberal Democratic appointees expired, and President Bush achieved a conservative majority on the five-person board. 

It’s true that our city government does need to attract business to our community—few would dispute that. But should we just look the other way when we encounter cruel, unethical business practices? Plenty of firms in Berkeley pay their taxes AND treat their workers with some respect and fairness. That is all we are asking Berkeley Honda to do.  

This strike can be settled—thereby increasing both Berkeley Honda’s business and the City of Berkeley’s tax revenues—when Berkeley Honda negotiates in good faith with the striking workers.  

In his commentary in the Planet, Chris Regalia goes on to argue that the Berkeley City Council should not be taking sides in this dispute: “As a reasonable and common sense businessman I am flabbergasted at the city’s support of the boycott. The only position a government should take in a labor dispute, especially at the outset (and without all of the facts), would be to remain neutral.” 

Is neutrality always a virtue? The Berkeley City Council’s decision to support the strike/boycott, which was not made prematurely or ignorantly, took into account the fact that the playing field in this dispute is not even. The new owner, Tim Beinke, comes from a wealthy family of Danville property developers and has hired an infamous anti-union law firm, Littler Mendelson, which specializes in defeating strikes and eliminating trade unions. Nat Courtney and his workmates, on the other hand, do not have such resources available to them. They are not able to hire expensive attorneys to argue their case. “Neutrality” in such a situation would amount to condoning the injustice of the status quo. With the cards stacked against them, the strikers’ best hope is that our community will help them counter the wealth and power that the new management wields. 


Raymond Barglow and Harry Brill are members of the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club.›