Berkeley Honda Employee Files Petition to Dissolve Unions at Contested Auto Shop By SUZANNE LA BARRE

Tuesday February 28, 2006

It was business as usual in front of Berkeley Honda Saturday. 

Dozens of demonstrators assembled at 2600 Shattuck Ave. with picket signs in hand to support the union strike that, for the past eight months, has pitted veteran Berkeley Honda service employees against dealership owners in a battle over workers, pensions and pay. 

The strike is going strong, picketers say. But they have new cause for concern. 

A Berkeley Honda employee filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) last month seeking an election to decertify the dealership’s service unions. If granted, workers could vote to dissolve union representation altogether.  

The unions, Machinists Local 1546 and Teamsters Local 78, called a strike June 15 when Danville businessmen Stephen and Tim Beinke assumed control of the auto shop, required employees to reapply for their jobs then declined to hire back roughly half the workforce. 

Instead, they opted for a pool of cheaper, less experienced workers—who are more qualified, they say—and refused to extend a union contract that expired at the end of June.  

The petition to summon an election was submitted by Assistant Manager Barry Strock, who was hired in June, and signed by at least 30 percent of the employees. The labor board is in the process of reviewing the petition and deciding whether an election is warranted and who is eligible to vote. 

Elections typically take place within 50 days of the petition filing date, according to the labor board website. However, area director of Machinists Local 1546 Don Crosatto said the board often breaches deadlines, and he doubts it will render a decision anytime soon. 

Crosatto said if employees cast votes today, there would be a draw. But if an election takes place after June 15—when strikers are no longer considered employees —anti-union workers would assume the catbird seat. 

Strike supporters say the petition is just the latest in a long line of tactics dealership management is using to bust the unions. Steve Haworth, general manager for Berkeley Honda, replied that it’s the workers—not the owners—who are fed up with union antics. 

“It has been very frustrating for those employees that have not walked out,” Haworth said.  

Berkeley Honda Internet Sales Manager Chris Regalia said strikebreakers are frustrated over the verbal abuse they’ve endured for the past eight months. (Strikers have made the same allegations.) 

But an election won’t change anything, Crosatto said, except to spark louder protest. 

“Even if this comes to pass, a boycott will continue,” he said. “We can boycott them forever.” 

The bi-weekly rallies in front of Berkeley Honda gather strikers, union supporters and general community members in urging passers-by to boycott the dealership. 

Both sides say the strike is exacting a toll on business. Though car sales are up 12 percent, Haworth admits service business has sharply declined. 

Bill Mixsell, a Berkeley Honda service advisor for 15 years who was re-hired in June then walked out, estimated the auto shop used to service about 60 cars a day. Now it sees 20—and sometimes as few as 12—a day, he said. 

Crosatto warns that ousting the unions won’t spell flourishing patronage. 

“Let’s say they get rid of us,” he said. “Business is not just going to pop back up.”  

In the meantime, both sides say they’re willing to negotiate. 

“[We’ve] been willing to talk,” said Harry Brill, of the Berkeley Honda Labor and Community Coalition, which formed to support the strike. “They basically didn’t want to bargain from the very beginning. We’re willing to make all kinds of concessions.” 

Haworth countered that management has been trying to cut a deal for seven months, much to no avail.  

“We all think the union was very quick to hold a preemptory call for a strike without sitting down at the bargaining table for us to work out at deal,” he said. “In doing so, I think they put themselves between a rock and a hard place.”  

At the crux of the dispute are worker pensions. 

In June, Berkeley Honda management declined to renew contracts that included pension coverage, among other benefits. Instead, workers were offered better pay and 401Ks but the unions rejected the offer. 

“The guys want to give me a raise but don’t want to give me a pension,” Mixsell said.  

“A pension will be more valuable when I retire,” he said. “They’re offering a 401K, but that doesn’t begin to compare to a pension.” 

Regalia says pensions are “terribly outdated”—insisting they bankrupted airline companies—and thinks workers should consider other options.  

Union representatives are slated to bargain with management March 9.