Five people stand around a table with a box of donuts and coffee and information about the union. A flag with the Urban Ore Workers Union logo hangs above them.
Urban Ore workers table outside the store’s parking lot on February 25, 2023. Credit: Marcus Gabbert

Update, April 19 Workers at Urban Ore, Berkeley’s last architectural salvage store, have officially joined the Industrial Workers of the World Local 670 union. The National Labor Relations Board certified the results of the election Wednesday. Management had told Berkeleyside the election was “unfair” but did not file an objection.

Original story, April 11 Workers at Urban Ore, Berkeley’s last architectural salvage store, have won the right to join the Industrial Workers of the World Local 670 union, but management is calling the election unfair and hasn’t ruled out filing an objection. 

Workers first announced their union drive two months ago, hoping to address understaffing, reduce high turnover rates and regularize their wage structure, a significant portion of which currently comes from a revenue- and profit-sharing plan. The historic business has been thriving in recent years, with revenues climbing by a third since 2019. 

Urban Ore’s owners, Dan Knapp and Mary Lou Van Deventer, employ a staff of 37, including four managers and four assistant managers. At least 21 workers across the store’s departments — building materials, salvage and recycling, receiving, and the general store — will be covered by the union if it is certified by the National Labor Relations Board. 

Workers voted 14-7 in favor of joining the union on April 7.  

The NLRB lists five votes as being challenged and another as being voided. The parties agreed that the eligibility of assistant managers would be determined after the election, but even if assistant managers are deemed eligible to vote, the outcome is unlikely to be affected.

Urban Ore’s owners, who have until April 14 to register an objection to the election, have declined to say whether they will do so. If management decides to file an objection and an offer of proof in support of its objections, the NLRB’s regional director will make a ruling.  

Max Palmer, a spokesperson for the IWW’s San Francisco Bay Area branch, said he believes management has “absolutely no grounds for an objection” and expects that the NLRB will certify the results when the seven-day objection period ends. “Everything was very by the book,” Palmer said.

Workers at Urban Ore table outside the store’s parking lot on Feb. 25, 2023. Credit: Marcus Gabbert

During the unionizing campaign, organizers filed three unfair labor practice charges alleging that mandatory meetings were held in which a manager used “threatening and coercive language” to dissuade workers from unionizing and that Van Deventer photographed employees while they tabled on the sidewalk outside the store. 

Knapp said he and his wife regularly take photos of the store and its surroundings and his wife stopped when she was requested to by a worker. The manager who held the meetings was being coached to take over the business, Knapp said, but he has since quit because he felt betrayed by workers.

Knapp said he thinks that the election was unfair because it “created a division based on the idea that there are bosses and workers and that division, and that adversarial attitude, comes out in all of the things that they do.” For example, he said, during a speech at a rally outside the Urban Ore gate an organizer said that “a boss is a boss is a boss is a boss.”

One key issue for workers has been the company’s wage structure. 

It’s currently a guaranteed base wage of $13.16 per hour, according to Giammarinaro, plus a fluctuating income-sharing portion. Workers now get 15% of the store’s revenues, split based on the number of workers and the hours worked. Knapp raised that percentage from 10% earlier this year and said he also provides health care benefits and twice-yearly bonuses based on the store’s profits. “Having the incentive fluctuate is a big reason we’ve been able to build the company to be as large and capable as it is,” Knapp said. 

Giammarinaro says his total pay ranges between $19 and $22 per hour, depending on the week. He said he makes less when customers stay home during rainy weather. 

Workers say wage fluctuation makes financial planning difficult and isn’t fair. “By creating the incentive structure this way, it shares the risk with us, but very little of the reward of being a true owner,” Giammarinaro said.

Workers have also raised safety concerns related to understaffing, given that their jobs involve the frequent lifting of heavy furniture. They’ve said they want to push for a written safety protocol, which the store currently doesn’t have (Knapp disputes this), and to have set times for tidying up the store before or after customers arrive.

Urban Ore
The plumbing section at Urban Ore. File photo: Pete Rosos

In a 2017 KQED article, Knapp said he planned to retire and switch the business to employee ownership “as soon as possible.” Nearly five years later, the switch hasn’t happened due to financial constraints, Knapp told Berkeleyside. He said the finish line is getting closer. 

Workers have said they’re tired of waiting for the switch but that they don’t see unionizing and becoming a co-op as mutually exclusive. 

Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center, said there is a long history of unionized worker co-ops. “In some cases union firms became coops and retained the union,” he wrote in an email. “In others workers in existing cooperatives made the decision to unionize, and in a few cases, unions made the decision to form a cooperative.” (The iconic Berkeley print shop Inkworks, on nearby Seventh Street, which closed in 2016 after 42 years, was a unionized co-op.) 

Giammarinaro has said that one impetus for unionizing is “to create a system for collective input that is similar to a co-op without having to do that on the owners’ timeline.”

The union election was originally scheduled to be held in-person at the store in March, but was delayed and switched to a mail-in ballot format because the owners did not submit a COVID-19 certification form to the National Labor Relations Board, according to Giammarinaro. Knapp said he spent $1,000 on a tent and set it up in the store’s parking lot but that the NLRB told him the tent was too small for COVID regulations. 

Giammarinaro said he wants the union to move past the election and get to the bargaining table.

“I’m really looking forward to … giving workers an opportunity to have a collective voice in their working conditions and wages,” he said.

Screen-printed poster of a cat with the words "We Support the Urban Ore Workers Union" on it in red.
Bobby the store cat is featured on a poster made by unionizing Urban Ore workers. Credit: Marcus Gabbert
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Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...