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Locked-Out Workers Picket West Berkeley Store

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday August 14, 2007

Charges and countercharges are flying between workers locked out by the owners of West Berkeley’s Metro Lighting. 

The immediate question for the seven workers of the retail store and manufacturing plant at 2121 San Pablo Ave. was the cleaning of a drum containing allegedly hazardous materials. 

Speaking for the workers, metal fabricator Gabe Wilson said cleaning the drum created hazards for others in the workshop and should have been done by a professional outside firm. As a consequence, the workers walked out.  

They picketed the business last week and said they will be there again today (Tuesday). 

“Powder can get into the air and cause chemical pneumonia and skin rashes,” Wilson told the Daily Planet on Monday. 

The workers left the building and owners Lawrence Grown and Christa Rybczynski then locked them out. 

Metro Lighting owners, however, said the concern about drum cleaning was insincere. The workers were looking for a way to assert the union, Grown told the Daily Planet. 

Grown said he called in the city of Berkeley’s toxics department (which looks more at records than at worksite operations) and called both California Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the manufacturer. None of them said the way the drum was cleaned could present a health hazard, he said. 

The dispute is not over the cleaning issue but over wages and union questions, Grown said. 

Six of the seven workers, according to Wilson, have declared themselves unionized, a part of the Industrial Workers of the World, something they say is legally binding without a National Labor Relations Board election or a simpler card check, where a majority of workers sign cards to become unionized. (The employer must agree to a card check.) 

Workers on a job site can get together for mutual aid. “It’s a protected union activity,” said Bruce Valde, an IWW organizer. 

The owners do not recognize the union, but say they are open to negotiation on a variety of issues. 

One of the issues concerns an older worker with 25 years experience who Wilson said makes about $4 per hour less than others. “Everyone felt he was doing an exceptional job,” Wilson said. 

The workers asked the owner to raise the older worker’s pay, but were told that since his health care costs were elevated because of his age, they could not. 

Grown said they had begun mediation with the worker. “We are trying to come to a resolution,” he said. 

Grown pointed to the high wages earned by the fabricators—between $15 and $19 per hour. “We pay 100 percent benefits for the workers and 50 percent for dependents,” he said, noting that is better than most small businesses do. 

Retail employees earn a base pay of $10 per hour and get collective commissions, amounting to about $5 per hour, he said, arguing that he and his wife started the business—now 100 percent solar—in their garage 14 years ago with credit card debt. He said they are not wealthy people and treat their workers well. 

“We’ll continue to picket until they meet our demands,” Wilson said. 

Grown said he recognizes the right to picket, but not to defame the business. If they do, “There will be consequences,” he said.