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January 16th, 2002 Stacy Ison | News Stories
 

Wobblies' Plans Shelved

     
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organizer Bill Bradley had predicted a big win at Nature's.

The Oregon Health & Science University nurses' strike isn't the only union story in town. Last Friday, the workers at the Southeast Division Street Nature's rejected a chance to be represented by the Industrial Workers of the World.

The vote was a huge victory for Nature's, which had argued that, in the words of company spokesman Mark Cockcroft, the union had "no experience representing employees at any grocery store, let alone a natural-foods store like Nature's."

The drive to unionize the Division Street store followed complaints about changes in working conditions implemented after Wild Oats Community Markets Inc., a national natural-foods chain, purchased Nature's in May 1999 (See "Nothing to Lose But Your Chai," WW, Dec. 5, 2001.)

The vote also was a big blow to the IWW, a socialist-leaning union that has been out of fashion for several decades. Organizer Bill Bradley had hoped to use a victory at Nature's to organize all of the natural-foods stores in Oregon and "set fair industry rates." But Friday's vote shows that Bradley will have to overcome resistance from a segment of the local counter-culture workforce that many assumed would be more open to the IWW's leftist worldview.

"The drive was haphazardly put together," said a 20-year-old employee who joined 63 percent of his co-workers in rejecting IWW representation. "It was just a lot of post-college students trying to relive revolutionary days. The IWW uses a lot of old-fashioned jargon. It isn't professional."

Started in 1905, the IWW was known for its socialism and its organization of heavy-industrial workers, as well as its hostility toward more traditional unions. (IWW's home page still slams the AFL-CIO for working "hand in hand with the capitalists to squelch rank-and-file militancy.")

The IWW's anti-capitalist attitude during World War I branded its members, known as Wobblies, as unpatriotic. Some leaders went to jail for conspiring to hinder the draft; the union hasn't been the same since. It has fewer than 2,000 members nationwide, says Bradley, a youth counselor at Harry's Mother.

In Portland, the IWW represents workers at Bradley's workplace and one other youth shelter, but Bradley, 32, admits that the Wobblies are "being brought back from near death." He had hoped Nature's would be a big part of the resuscitation.

Instead, he'll have to hone his CPR skills at a far smaller organization, The Daily Grind, 4026 SE Hawthorne Blvd. In December 2001, a majority of Daily Grind's 21 grocery and nine deli employees asked for a union election, expressing concerns about working conditions and pay. On Dec. 31, five days after being notified by the National Labor Relations Board of the decision by workers to seek an election, Daily Grind owner Wes Perkins closed the deli and laid off the deli workers. Perkins told WW that because of the recession he had decided in early December to close the deli but waited until after the holidays to act.

Bradley, however, is convinced Perkins is trying to rid the store of pro-union employees. IWW called for a boycott, and the community picketed the store on New Year's Day. The union and Perkins are now negotiating a number of things, one of which is the date of an actual election.

In addition, Bradley told WW he had spoken with employees at two other natural-foods outposts--New Seasons, a non-union local chain, and Food Front, the co-op on Northwest Thurman Street now represented by United Food and Commercial Workers. Bradley says Food Front employees are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the UFCW.

Last week's vote at Nature's was clearly a setback, but Bradley has clearly been noticed by those who watch the local labor landscape, including the folks at Bullivant Houser Bailey, a law firm that advises management in union issues. Its summer 2001 Employment Update had this advice: "Employers should beware...the Wobblies are back."

 
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