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In time for Labor Day, North Bay workers, union ramp up organizing efforts coming out of pandemic

George Pulis has been striking for more than two weeks with his fellow mental health care workers from Kaiser Permanente, walking the picket line outside its Santa Rosa facility.

Pulis, who does psychiatric risk assessments in the emergency department, and his fellow members of the National Union of health care Workers are protesting what they contend are significant staffing shortages that are causing delays in treatment and burnout.

Kaiser claims the strike is part of a bargaining tactic in negotiations.

Acknowledging the challenges of the strike, Pulis also said he is lucky he has a union to represent him.

“We are needing more things. The idea of getting benefits, health benefits,” Pulis said of the advantages of being a union member. “The thing that is amazing about a union is that you go to an employer as a group and then you make a decision with an employer and it gets written down. It gets put in a book and you can reference it.”

As the nation celebrates Labor Day, many other local North Bay workers are looking to have representation like Pulis. Others are trying to expand their pay and benefits even if they don’t plan on striking.

Actions like the Kaiser strike have been part of an uptick in local union activity, such as a Teamsters push to unionize at the Amy’s Kitchen Inc. plant in Santa Rosa; increased attention to the plights of farmworkers; and the latest successful unionization drive for hotel workers in Santa Rosa.

The action mirrors a national trend in which younger workers have made attempts to organize at major companies such as Starbucks and Amazon, triggering a revitalized labor movement that has been cheered on by the Biden administration. In fact, the number of filings to hold a vote for union certification was up 58% from October 2021 through June compared to the same time period a year earlier, according to the National Labor Relations Board.

“We feel our freedoms are under attack in many ways. And that's what's leading to this resurgence. But we're seeing more workers standing together and attempting to organize into unions than we've seen in the past 50 years,” said Jack Buckhorn, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council of the AFL-CIO.

“I think this surge in organizing, honestly, is the result of frustration over many decades of workers just not being rewarded for their work,” Buckhorn added.

The unionization rate in the United States was at 10.3% in 2021, which is far below the membership rate of 20.1% of 1983. In California, the rate was at 15.9%, which was buffeted by strong public-sector representation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In Sonoma County, the rate is at about 27% of the overall workforce, Buckhorn said.

COVID-19 was a spark for the revitalization as many service workers ― younger and highly educated ― questioned how they were being treated on the front lines of their workplace and, unlike prior generations, did not accept the status quo, said John Logan, director of the labor and employment studies department at San Francisco State University.

“The pandemic created opportunities that didn’t exist before,” Logan said.

In the North Bay, there has been only one attempt to organize at Starbucks with an election at a Mill Valley location that failed by a single vote. But Buckhorn said he expects more attempts within the coming year.

The most high-profile local campaign has been at Amy’s, the Petaluma-based company of vegetarian dishes that also has been certified as a B Corporation, meaning that it has met certain conditions on environmental, community and labor standards. The Teamsters have attempted to unionize workers at the plant, alleging they “are being exploited with unlivable wages, unsafe working conditions, and access to decent affordable medical coverage.”

Amy’s spokesman Paul Schiefer said the company “has been very clear” that it respects its employees to make their own choice whether to unionize. But it has brought in consultants that critics say are part of a campaign to derail any chance to gain collective bargaining. The issue garnered even more attention after Amy’s in July announced it was closing a San Jose plant it recently opened, resulting with the layoffs of 331 workers.

The UNITE HERE union had been attempting to organize the plant. “The closure of this facility is part of the company's overall campaign orchestrated against its workers,” said Tho Do, UNITE HERE’s Northern California organizing director, in a statement.

In an interview with The Press Democrat, Schiefer disagreed and said the company shuttered the plant because of a drop in demand for pizzas that it planned to produce. In addition, the price of ingredients was rising because of inflation to the point where Amy’s was losing $1 million a month.

“It wasn’t operating profitably, and we didn’t have the demand for the pizzas that it was built to make,” he said. “We are not at a scale where we can keep a loss like that on the books.”

Many of the recent organizing attempts have been at companies with good reputations in areas such as the environment and workplace equality such as Amy’s, Apple and REI. But Logan noted that labor organizing is another matter.

“What we find is that these progressive companies are just as anti-union; sometimes even more anti-union than regular companies,” he said.

And even in politically blue California, the opportunity to make it easier to unionize private-sector jobs can face obstacles. For example, Gov. Gavin Newsom last year vetoed legislation that would make it easier for farmworkers to unionize by being able to cast ballots by mail.

Lawmakers last month passed a revised version of the measure, AB 2183, which is sponsored by Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-Monterey Bay). But labor advocates fear Newsom might veto the new legislation amid signals from his office. All local state lawmakers voted for the bill with the exception of State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, who had no recorded vote on Aug. 29.

“Sen. Dodd supports the rights of farmworkers to unionize, but he was unable to vote for this bill because it did not address Gov. Newsom’s concerns about ballot privacy,” said Dodd spokesman Paul Payne in a statement.

“We have accepted 90% of what the governor has proposed. We have been negotiating with them throughout this whole process,” said Armando Elenes, secretary-treasurer for the United Farm Workers (UFW). The union represents only a small number of farmworkers locally with those at Balletto Vineyards and Winery in Santa Rosa; Gallo of Sonoma; C. Mondavi & Sons and St. Supéry Estate Vineyards & Winery in the Napa Valley.

“It’s extremely difficult,” Elenes said of organizing agricultural workers. “Now we have even more (foreign) guest workers in the North Bay, that makes it even tougher.”

Still, there has been progress for the United Farm Workers. The recent contract at Gallo of Sonoma provides workers 50% more than their regular rate if they have to work when the air quality index is above a level of 150 or more, which is considered unhealthy for the general population.

The activist group North Bay Jobs with Justice is lobbying all local agriculture producers to adopt that same standard. “That’s the value of having representation,” said Elenes of the Gallo contract.

Despite the challenges, there have been some progress in the hotel industry, which traditionally has had a much better rate at organizing privately held companies. The Graton Resort and Casino in Rohnert Park is a notable example of unionized workforce in the industry.

Last year, UNITE HERE Local 2 successfully organized about 40 employees at the AC Hotel Santa Rosa Sonoma Wine Country that opened up during the pandemic, said Sonya Karabel, a researcher for the union. Those workers will join the local’s other members at the Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country in Santa Rosa and the Sheraton Sonoma Wine Country Petaluma, which both have another 120 union workers.

The union, however, is not resting on that accomplishment. Karabel noted that 90% of the hotels owned by major hospitality companies in San Francisco are unionized.

“We have made significant inroads over the last decade,” she said. “We still have a long way to go.”

That also applies across other industries as Buckhorn noted that he recently had been informed that nurses at two other local hospitals may take action to go on strike amid this renewal in organized labor.

He cautioned, however, that for significant change to occur, Congress would have to pass legislation. Democrats have sponsored a measure called the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would make it easier for U.S. workers to obtain union certification.

The measure passed the U.S. House last year, but there is insufficient support in the current Senate to clear the measure to send to President Biden.

“These big corporations ― this organized money ― have spent years attacking, twisting and fracturing our labor laws, which leaves many without a voice,” Buckhorn said.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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