Public Comment

Berkeley, Land of the Anti-Union Progressive

By Dave Blake
Thursday May 22, 2008 - 10:15:00 AM

Last week I began outlining why our progressive local power structure isn’t really progressive anymore. The hardest pill for me, as a long-time progressive, to swallow was the betrayal of the Berkeley Bowl workers. 

The Bowl is my favorite place to shop. I don’t believe, however, this means that the Bowl workers should be denied basic employment rights. Glen Yasuda, the Bowl’s owner, is a big-time anti-union employer. The Bowl endured a three-year struggle six years ago to establish union representation. That ended only when the National Labor Relations Board staff declared Yasuda’s inimidating and retaliatory behavior so outrageous that they recommended that the anti-union vote not only be invalidated but overturned—and the union immediately recognized without any further voting. (That’s from a Bush-headed NLRB!) 

When Yasuda applied three years ago to open his new West Berkeley near San Pablo Avenue, the workers naturally assumed that their progressive City Council would make sure that they didn’t have to refight that struggle. But Mayor Tom Bates is a funny kind of progressive who doesn’t seem to consider a worker’s right to join a union a fundamental principle. 

Yasuda’s land was zoned for industrial, not retail use. He needed the zoning changed to allow a grocery store on the site. That change would raise the rental value of the land from 75 cents a month per square foot to $2.75, and was worth $7 million to him. The workers asked Mayor Bates not to support the rezoning until Yasuda agreed to allow his workers to join the Bowl union. Bates refused. The workers then asked Bates to support a one-week delay, to allow them to negotiate a promise to allow the workers to vote on representation, which is known as a card-check election. On the morning of the council vote, a Yasuda supporter circulated a rumor that Yasuda would abandon his project if the council didn’t pass it that very night. 

It was in this context that Nancy Skinner, newly appointed to the East Bay Parks Board in preparation to run as Bates’ designated successor for Loni Hancock’s Assembly seat, stepped forward to give Bates progressive cover for his vote against the workers. Here's what she said, in its entirety: 


Hi. Nancy Skinner, West Berkeley resident, I live on Bancroft west of Sacramento. I urge you to support the Berkeley Bowl tonight. I really feel for you as a former Councilmember, these are difficult decisions that you are weighing. As a very strong supporter of labor, I feel that it’s unfortunate that the ownership of the Berkeley Bowl was very unfair to the employees' efforts to unionize at the current store, and I would like them to be more supportive right now, but as a shopper at the Berkeley Bowl I endorsed the workers petitions and their rights to unionize, I supported them 100 percent and they won and I think that they will win again when the new store opens and if we say no to the store then we don't even have the opportunity for any workers to form a union and get represented and unionize the store and we potentially would have no market for the area either. So I urge you to support it so that we can back the workers and get a union in there. Thank You. 

That is, screw the workers now when you have the leverage to help them, then later support them when they have to fight again for the right to join a union—a costly battle that may once again take years and is by no means guaranteed to succeed. That night, the motion to back the workers failed by one vote, with Bates the only progressive voting against it. 

Every anti-union employer claims he’ll go under if his workers are represented by a union; if you can’t call that bluff, there’ll never be any unions. The absurdity, of course, is that the Shattuck Bowl does just fine, union and all. 

When asked why she opposed the workers, Skinner has said that the council didn’t have the power to deny Yasuda’s permit. That is cynical misdirection: there were two independent issues before them: the permit and the zoning-map change. Though they couldn’t write a condition for a permit to operate a grocery store that would require a union election, nothing stood in the way of simply refusing to give Yasuda his $7 million industrial-to-retail change while they had the crucial leverage. 

As Skinner suggested, the progressive community will certainly line up behind the workers when they again try to organize the Bowl. (And Bates and Skinner will undoubtedly try to head up the parade endorsing the very unionization effort they thwarted two years ago). Should that organizing effort fail (and Yasuda is a lot savvier now than when he lost the NLRB decision), that will likely spell the end of their union representation completely. Yasuda will be able to threaten his workers with closing the less-profitable unionized Shattuck site. 

Meanwhile, when Skinner was asked at the Democracy for America (DFA) endorsement meeting to state her position on labor, she spent all her time explaining how important it is to support the right of workers to have card-check elections. In the age of anti-union progressive politicians, you have to watch politicians’ hands and their lips. As often as not, they’re speaking power to truth, instead of the other way around. 

Those of us who saw our progressive political movement as an opportunity to do good in the world, who got up before dawn to spread the progressive word to every corner of Berkeley on election day, needn’t surrender to despair because the apparatus of that movement has been taken over by cynical operatives. Both Hancock and Skinner face potent progressive opponents in the Democratic primary battles for East Bay Senate and Assembly seats. 

Hancock’s progressive challenger is Wilma Chan. Chan’s California Labor Federation Progressive Scorecard lifetime rating is higher than Hancock’s. Chan used her six-year Assembly career to actively pass progressive legislation, and was the first woman—and the first Asian-American—to be elected majority leader of the Assembly; Skinner must prove her progressive credentials against Kriss Worthington, the long-time progressive Berkeley councilmember who voted to support the Bowl workers at the crucial moment. 

The election 12 days from now will lock up the major positions of power in the East Bay for at least the next eight years, Many of us will be rising before dawn, just like in the old days, to deliver flyers and slatecards that will help elect these trustworthy, effective progressives. We’re seeking what you might call change you can believe in. Join us at and