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Bitter Honda Strike Ends With Contract Agreement

By Suzanne La Barre
Friday April 28, 2006

Service workers at Berkeley Honda overwhelmingly ap-proved a contract late Monday, ending a bitter 10-month strike—and the reign of an inflatable rat over Shattuck Avenue.  

Employees of Machinists Lodge 1546 and Teamsters Local 78 voted 14-1 in favor of a five-year deal that concludes the work action initiated last June when incoming Berkeley Honda owners declined to rehire several veteran employees and refused to renew union contracts.  

Under the watchful eye of the union’s symbol, a towering blowup rat, community members joined the picket line at 2600 Shattuck Ave. urging potential customers to take their business elsewhere. 

No longer. 

The settlement, tentatively reached late last week, extends phased employment to the roughly 20 workers who lost their jobs, calls for an annual 3 percent raise and requires owners to contribute to a new pension plan. 

The unions’ Automotive Industries Pension Plan was at the crux of the labor dispute. Management said it exacted an insurmountable financial burden on dealership owners, and left former Berkeley Honda owner Jim Doten on the hook for more than half a million dollars. In its place, dealership negotiators proposed a 401K plan, an option the unions summarily rejected. 

“A lot of our folks took wage increases and put it in their pensions, so to suddenly have that taken away, to them it’s like grabbing into their pockets and taking money out,” said Don Crosatto, area director of Machinists Lodge 1546. 

As a compromise, the owners agreed to pay into a new pension, the Machinists National Pension Plan. The contribution rate is about the same, but employees may be required to work four or five years longer before they can retire, Crosatto said. 

The unions made an additional concession by agreeing to phased reemployment. Those not hired back in June will be reinstated at a rate of about two workers every four weeks, as work demands dictate, Crosatto said. 

Mayor Tom Bates facilitated negotiations between the two sides though he did not take a formal seat at the bargaining table. The dealership rejected his offers to mediate, because he joined with the City Council last year in calling on citizens to support a boycott. 

The clash over contracts commenced when Danville businessmen assumed ownership of Berkeley Honda from Doten, and required employees to reapply for their positions. When only about half the service workers were rehired, union members walked off the job. 

Employees accused management of trying to bust the unions, a claim reinforced eight months later, some said, when an assistant manager filed a petition for a union decertification election. The petition was signed by at least 30 percent of the dealership’s employees. 

The unions’ outstanding unfair labor practice allegations thwarted progress of the petition (which is now moot due to the settlement). But the message was clear: Union support at Berkeley Honda was far from unanimous. 

Outside the tinted windows of the dealership, a different atmosphere existed.  

Legions of community members joined forces with the unions on the strike line, from labor activists and politicians to outraged Honda owners like Judy Shelton, who not only took her business elsewhere, but took to brandishing picket signs, too. More than 40 organizations supported the picket line, a representative from the Alameda Labor Council said. 

Their efforts exacted a toll. Berkeley Honda General Manager Steve Haworth estimates the boycott diminished service business by 60 percent.  

“The consumers voted with their pocketbooks and dramatically reduced the sales,” said City Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who would not give specific sales tax figures, because state law forbids it. “You could certainly tell there were a lot less customers.” 

Now, union representatives, Berkeley Honda management and the mayor are calling on the public to resume patronage of the dealership. 

“We’ve done a great job of chasing [business] away,” Crosatto said. “Now let’s chase it back in.” 

Though both sides and city representatives were all smiles at a press conference Tuesday, an undercurrent of hostility remains. Sales Representative Allen Bonet complained that the unions had mismanaged their pension fund and were now mismanaging the settlement. Assistant Manager Barry Strock, who filed the decertification petition, rued the relentless heckling he endured during the strike, and said he still doesn’t see the point in having unions. 

Crosatto hopes once workers are back on the job, animosity will wane. 

“People will be so busy, they won’t have time for personal reminiscing,” he said.  

As for the rat: Crosatto said it is now available for weddings, bar mitzvahs and children’s parties.