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Why are Urban Ore Workers Trying to Unionize?

By Zack Haber - Medium, February 15, 2023

Workers say they want higher wages, scheduling reform, a just cause clause for terminations, and a say in how the company is run.

Workers at Berkeley’s popular salvaged goods store, Urban Ore, filed a petition to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) stating their intention to form a union through the Industrial Workers of the World on February 2.

That same day, an instagram account associated with the union drive posted a statement voicing support for the store and its mission of stopping waste while also pushing for higher wages and scheduling reform for workers.

“We are proud to work at Urban Ore, and we want to make it even better,” reads the statement. “Urban Ore allows its customers a more sustainable alternative for shopping, and we want it to provide more sustainable jobs.”

On February 5, workers held a rally to support their union drive outside of the store. Members of East Bay DSA and several unions, such as ILWU, Bay Area TANC, and the National Union of Health Care Workers, accompanied the workers.

The NLRB will soon hold a secret ballot election for the store’s 25 union eligible employees. If a majority votes to approve the union, it will be officially recognized.

Benno Giammarinaro, who works in Urban Ore’s merchandise receiving department, said he’s “definitely optimistic” employees will secure enough yes votes to unionize. As part of their union petition filing, a majority of the store’s employees have already submitted signed cards indicating a desire to form a union.

Mary Van Deventer told this reporter that her and fellow Urban Ore co-owner Dan Knapp would not do an interview. She did, however, email a written statement from the store saying it “respects the rights of its employees to unionize if that is what a majority desire.”

Workers want higher wages, which they say Urban Ore can afford to pay

Van Deventer’s statement also said the company offers “very competitive pay.” Urban Ore pays its non-managerial staff a base wage of $13.60 an hour, which is less than Berkeley’s minimum wage of $16.99. But these employees also get fluctuating additional wages as a portion of the store’s gross income goes to them. In January, this proportion was raised from 10% to 15%. This year the owners estimate the income share to provide a $9.25 boost to the base wage, meaning that, in total, they expect workers to make around $22.85 per hour.

Urban Ore worker Sarah Mossler said that she’s not against income sharing, but that the current model often leaves her worried about whether or not she can pay her bills.

“I’d be fine with it if we had a stable minimum living base wage,” said Mossler. “But it’s been incredibly stressful for me because my rent is the same every month while my paychecks aren’t.”

The owners describe the income share as an “incentive” for workers, but Giammarinaro thinks the current model “puts the risk of the business on the workers,” as factors beyond their control, such as the weather, affects sales.

“If there’s a rainy week,” he said, “merchandise gets damaged and people don’t come out as much. This means we make several dollars an hour less than usual.”

Ultimately workers feel that their paychecks, even with income sharing, make living in the Bay Area difficult, and that the wage rate has contributed to high employee turnover.

“We are struggling to afford living in the community that we love,” reads the Urban Ore worker statement on instagram. “This has created a chronic understaffing problem.”

According to Giammarinaro, 19 Urban Ore employees have left since he first started working there in May of 2021. Currently, the store has 31 workers employed below the senior management level.

Giammarinaro feels the company is in a good position to raise wages to address the turnover as sales have surged since COVID started. The store, which sells mostly donated goods like doors, furniture, appliances and media, has taken in about 7 million dollars in the last two years. In a letter Operations Manager Max Wechsler sent to employees this year announcing the income share percentage rate increase, he stated that, except for its mortgage, Urban Ore is “debt-free.”

Both owners and workers agree that working at Urban Ore is physically demanding. In their statement, the owners describe the jobs as “physical work for all staff,” and that “three tons of goods” enter the store each day. For most workers, this means lots of lifting. Giammarinaro often finds himself exhausted, saying “almost every day I immediately come home and plot on my bed after work.” Mossler thinks addressing understaffing would make doing such lifting safer.

“When you’re lifting something designed for lots of people to lift,” she said, “and you’re on your own; it’s dangerous.”

Workers also want more of a say into how the business is run

Giammarinaro and Mossler both said that in addition to addressing wages and understaffing, they want a union in order to have a say in how the business is run. Recently, Mossler decided to step down from a position in management she had been promoted to in order to be eligible to be a part of a potential Urban Ore union. While she had taken the management position with the goal of influencing the business and helping co-workers, she didn’t find that method effective.

“I took the job as a manager because I thought that was the way to make the place better and advocate for the people I work with,” she said, “but I quickly saw that I just got more facetime with people that didn’t hear my ideas or take them seriously.”

According to Giammarinaro, one thing workers specifically want is time set aside for cleaning the store. Currently, all in-store cleaning has to be done during business hours, which makes it difficult to maintain the store.

“People could really clean, organize merchandise, and make things look nice if the store could close early once every few weeks, or if people could come in a bit early sometimes,” he said.

In recent years, workers have objected to the manner in which Urban Ore has terminated certain employees. Last summer, 15 workers signed a statement which called for a terminated worker to be rehired. The letter stated the worker had faced “mistreatment” and that their absence would “have a significant impact on revenue, workloads and organizing.” While that employee was never rehired, workers, like Mossler, want a just cause clause in their contract to make it so owners have to give a reason for terminating an employee in the future. Currently Urban Ore, like all California businesses that don’t have contracts requiring otherwise, can terminate employees “at-will” without giving a reason.

“We think that the at-will employment can rear its ugly head,” said Mossler.

In their email, Urban Ore’s owners stated that this year they are “working toward transitioning to become a worker-owned cooperative,” a transition they have spoken about in the press since 2017.

According to Giammarinaro, workers support such an idea but want to have a voice, through a union, in how a potential cooperative could be structured.

“We agree with a worker owned cooperative model and thinking unionizing first will help,” he said. “We don’t think we need a coop to start making workplace democracy.”

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author.

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