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Creative Re-Use Workers Push To Form Union

By David Sharfenberg, Berkeley Daily Planet - Friday, April 25, 2003

Employees of the East Bay Depot for Creative Re-Use voted unanimously to unionize this week, capping a year of turmoil at one of the area's most storied nonprofit organizations.

Workers have framed their struggle as a fight for the soul of the Depot, which has been providing Berkeley and Oakland residents with low-cost recycled art supplies - egg cartons, bottle caps and toilet rolls - for 28 years.

Management, employees say, has strayed from the nonprofit mission of the organization - stifling employee creativity and moving toward a business-like model that is focused on furniture and other high-priced goods.

"We don't want to become a retail thrift store," said Adriana Carrillo, who works for one of the Depot's youth outreach programs. "We want to be a re-use store serving teachers and students and artists in the community."

Employees, who now make $8 to $15 an hour, also say their wages must be increased.

But David Elliott, president of the Depot's board of directors, argues that unrealistic wage demands, protests outside the store and an alleged worker slowdown are doing more to weaken the cash-strapped Depot, and its larger mission, than management ever could.

"They can't keep undermining the Depot if they really want it to go, if they're really committed to the Depot and what it stands for," he said.

The Depot's 16 full-time and part-time employees deny that a slowdown is in effect and emphasize that they have not called on customers to boycott the store.

Elliott dates the Depot's problems to December 2001, when former Executive Director Linda Rinna-Levitsky retired and a new director, Rae Holzman, took the reins. Holzman ran the Depot like a collective, according to Elliott, scuttling efforts to turn the store into a more business-like enterprise.

Holzman said she inherited an organization that had been poorly run, and was already on shaky financial ground. "I wasn't aware of how deep in trouble they were," she said.

The situation came to a head last summer when Holzman quit, a Depot supporter made a late payment and legal bills peaked in a fight with UC Berkeley over the store's university-owned space on San Pablo Avenue.

"Last summer was a turning point," said Carrillo. "There had always been problems, but the crisis heightened everything."

The Depot eventually triumphed in its legal battle with the university, winning a four-year extension on the nonprofit's lease at a reduced rent.

But the summer's financial crisis reverberated throughout the organization. Employees bristled at a request, later withdrawn, to forgo a paycheck. Members of the board had to lend the organization $12,000 to make up a budget deficit. And the Depot, making use of a grant from the Alameda County Waste Management Authority, brought in the Society of St. Vincent De Paul, a Catholic social services agency which runs several thrift stores, to consult on business operations.

Workers saw it as another sign of business-like influence on the nonprofit. Management said it was an important step toward getting the Depot on sound financial footing and keeping it open in the long term.

Indeed, as Elliott points out, a separate $40,000 grant from the Waste Management Authority is contingent on continued financial restructuring.

"There are some real issues and problems over there," said Bruce Goddard, public affairs director for the Waste Management Authority. "They have to maximize the retail."

Employees say the shift in tone has had a devastating effect on the creative, cooperative work environment that was in place under Holzman.

"People who'd been there a long time had a lot of autonomy . we all worked as a team," said Helen Jones, a part-time employee. "Then they started telling us we couldn't do this or that."

Concerned about the perceived shift at the Depot, employees began meeting last summer and proposed intervention by a third-party mediator. The board rejected the request, arguing it was working on personnel policies that would resolve the employees' concerns - which also included workplace safety and an ambiguous pay hike structure.

The board's rejection of mediation upset employees, paving the way for this week's vote to unionize with the San Francisco-based International Workers of the World, which has also organized recycling workers in Berkeley.

Employees say the process of formal contract negotiations, expected to begin next week, will provide some of the financial reform - on pay scale, health care coverage and other issues - that management craves.

"It's always felt like it's a growing organization and it hasn't been able to keep up with the growing," said Chela Fielding, a teacher and outreach worker with the Depot. "It couldn't continue to be a mom-and-pop operation. It couldn't continue without structure."

This article and its contents are the product of the publisher, and their opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the IWW. It's included here for information purposes only.

Letter to the Editor (unpublished) from FW Harry Siitonen

Editors, Daily Planet:

As an "old-time Wobbly", I was delighted to read in your April 25-27 edition that employees at the East Bay Depot for Creative Re-Use had voted to unionize with the Industrial Workers of the World. The Planet erred in calling it "International Workers of the World", a redundancy. This rank-and-file run union, Industrial Workers of the World, is popularly called "IWW" or "The Wobblies".

Workers at two other non-profit Berkeley recycling shops are under IWW contracts, "Curbside Recyclers" with The Ecology Center and Community Conservation Centers, or "Buy Back".