Report on struggle by retail workers in Berkeley, California to unionize under the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
The Urban Ore workers of Berkeley, California won their union election with a two-thirds majority of workers’ votes on April 7, 2023.
The union received confirmation of their certification from the NLRB as a bargaining unit on Thursday, April 20. The campaign went public on February 1.
While one of the employers had told local media he objected to some of the ballots, he did not file any objection before the deadline with the regional National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) office.
Urban Ore is a 3-acre for-profit salvage operation in Berkeley, California, founded in 1980 with its goal “to end the age of waste.” Workers describe it as an essential part of the Berkeley community.
“They have a reputation in Berkeley as one of the longstanding hippy businesses that people love. The owners are also a bit power obsessed and don’t want to let go of control of their little baby,” said one of the workers who helped organize the drive, Benno Giammarinaro.
Negotiating a Contract Next
The next step for the union members is to negotiate a contract that addresses many of the problems that spurred the union drive in the first place: an unfair wage structure, a hazardous workplace, and understaffing.
“I’m confident that we can make Urban Ore a more sustainable place for everyone, not just the owners. I am thrilled that we now have a seat at the bargaining table where the voices of the workers can finally be heard,” said Sarah Mossler, who works in the Receiving department.
Giammarinaro said that the top demands will be changing a wage structure that currently pays them below minimum wage with a bonus based on business revenue, which fluctuates every month, a cost-of-living adjustment, changing staffing and scheduling to address chronic understaffing, and to ensure Urban Ore is a safe place to work.
“We need a contract where we can ensure that our base wage is above minimum wage,” said AJ Abrams, who works in the General Store department. “We need wages that are stable and that are sufficient to ensure quality of life that allow us to actually do the job, to process things and save them from the landfill, and keep doing it over years.”
Abrams wants workers to have a future at Urban Ore. “We don’t have any type of retirement plan or pension plan. There are people who have worked here for over 20 years and they still make the same wages as those that started yesterday. And that’s not right! People have invested a lot of time in this place and love in labor in this place and their bodies have paid the price. It’s dangerous work, often, and it could be safer. At the end of it, they come out of it with nothing, feeling like they have been wasted like an object at a landfill.”
Health & Safety on the job
Workers need “to have serious safety protocols in place and safety training that would really help keep workers safe,” said Giammarinaro.
Health and safety during a pandemic was a major rallying point for workers. Urban Ore quickly received essential business status from the city government in April 2020. The owners used the status to carry on business as usual, rather than put measures into place to protect workers.
Despite three years of living and working in a pandemic, the owners lacked even the basic information about Covid-19 cases among their staff to fill out a one page NLRB form to ensure the union election could be held in-person at Urban Ore. That failure led to the NLRB canceling the election less than 24 hours before the vote originally scheduled on March 7 and changing the election to a mail-in ballot, which delayed the certification drive by a month.
The sudden change from in-person to mail-in ballot was a challenge for the union, during a time of bad weather that delayed mail delivery.
“Mail-in was like this whole new thing for us to deal with. With at least four or five other people, I had to help them get their ballot because their ballots never showed up on time,” said Giammarinaro. “There were some address mistakes that the employer made, when they first submitted the list to the NLRB. There were wrong zip codes. One person’s address was used as another person’s address. So all of that contributed to a kind of stressful kind of election period but we still managed to win despite that.”
Covid-19 was one of many health and safety problems on the job. At a pro-union customer support rally outside of the Urban Ore gates on February 5, 2023, Abrams, told how he got bedbugs from the job. Rather than quit, as his doctor suggested, he continued to organize the union with his Fellow Workers. Under pressure from the union –well before it was certified– the bosses agreed to hire a company to do a monthly spray to protect workers from bedbugs and other critters.
“In the face of that [inaction by the bosses], we were able to fix it and we did mitigate all of the risks that we could. But that wasn’t the way things were going down before we talked about it and met every day and figured out what all of our concerns were and figured out a way to make these our leverage as workers to make those needs known to management and ownership,” said Abrams.
Linked to workplace safety was the high turnover and chronic understaffing at Urban Ore. Abrams has worked in the General Store department for two years and seen 30 people come and go. “There has been so much turnover since I have been here… Ultimately, the business model is reliant on a workforce that is not treated as sustainable.”
Why the IWW?
The IWW’s local industry experience at the Ecology Centre, the Berkeley Recycling Centre and Moe’s Books made the IWW a good fit for the workers.
“Both of those unions have long standing contracts with their employers. Both of those organizations kind of came up around the same time as Urban Ore as part of that same local nexus of environmentalism mixed with city planning. They are all part of the Zero Waste landscape in the Bay Area… It made a lot of sense because there is already all of this experience from the IWW’s perspective on how to negotiate with these types of businesses and what things should go into contracts,” said Giammarinaro. “There is so much transparency with the IWW.”
The IWW’s approach to union organizing was key.
“The biggest thing was that the IWW really emphasizes rank-and-file democracy and worker autonomy,” said Giammarinaro, which fits well with the work culture. “Urban Ore is a place full of weirdos and eccentric folk.”
Giammarinaro is hoping to see the workplace diversify as well and to discard notions such as what is “men’s work” so anyone can do these jobs. “We want to have further workplace diversity at our workplace as well,” he said.
Negotiating a first contract is only a first step in consolidating the Urban Ore union and improving the workplace. For decades, the owners and workers have talked about the idea of making Urban Ore a worker cooperative, where all workers own and operate the business democratically. At times, that idea was used by the owners as a carrot, but nothing ever came of it. The usual excuse, according to workers, is that the business isn’t doing well enough to transition to a worker cooperative. But that reason may not be valid anymore. The boom in home renovations and people looking for affordable building supplies during the pandemic has Urban Ore doing better than it ever has before.
Tati, an Urban Ore clothing specialist, said this is a question she hears a lot. “One of the top questions was ‘Isn’t Urban Ore a co-op?’ No, not yet. But the union may help us finally make that transition after twenty years of talking about it!”