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Unsatisfied with Wages, Working Conditions, Urban Ore Workers Try to Unionize

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 (IWW) on February 2.

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A collection of second hand second hand bathtubs, sinks and windows for sale at Urban Ore, a large popular salvaged goods store in Berkeley. Photo on February 14 by Zack Haber.
A collection of second hand second hand bathtubs, sinks and windows for sale at Urban Ore, a large popular salvaged goods store in Berkeley. Photo on February 14 by Zack Haber.

By Zack Haber

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 (IWW) 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 she and fellow Urban Ore co-owner Dan Knapp would not do an interview. She did, however, e-mail a written statement from the store saying it “respects the rights of its employees to unionize if that is what a majority desire.”

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, affect 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 in the last two years.

In a letter that 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 plop 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.”

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 e-mail, 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.”

Arts and Culture

Third Annual Town Up Tuesday Lifts Oakland’s Community, Culture and Joy

Urban Peace Movement announced Town Up Tuesday, a free community music and social awareness festival dedicated to the people of Oakland to celebrate Bay Area culture and create safety by fostering connection and belonging. It will be on Tuesday, May 21, at Edoff Memorial Bandstand at Lake Merritt from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.

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The event will feature local Bay Area legends and rising stars home-grown talent that will include 10 performers: 1100 Himself, The Conscious Daughters, Michael Sneed, Trunk Boiz, 3LISE, The Animaniakz and Ms. Bria. Too $hort is a special guest and there will also be a surprise legendary Oakland artist. The two DJs are Emelle & Dahge, and the two hosts are Dnas and Mystic.
The event will feature local Bay Area legends and rising stars home-grown talent that will include 10 performers: 1100 Himself, The Conscious Daughters, Michael Sneed, Trunk Boiz, 3LISE, The Animaniakz and Ms. Bria. Too $hort is a special guest and there will also be a surprise legendary Oakland artist. The two DJs are Emelle & Dahge, and the two hosts are Dnas and Mystic.

By Kyung Jin Lee

Urban Peace Movement announced Town Up Tuesday, a free community music and social awareness festival dedicated to the people of Oakland to celebrate Bay Area culture and create safety by fostering connection and belonging.

It will be on Tuesday, May 21, at Edoff Memorial Bandstand at Lake Merritt from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The event will feature local Bay Area legends and rising stars home-grown talent that will include 10 performers: 1100 Himself, The Conscious Daughters, Michael Sneed, Trunk Boiz, 3LISE, The Animaniakz and Ms. Bria.

Too $hort is a special guest and there will also be a surprise legendary Oakland artist. The two DJs are Emelle & Dahge, and the two hosts are Dnas and Mystic.

Past performers have included: Kamaiyah, Yukmouth, Stunnaman02, Symba, Lil Kayla, Grand Nationxl, Jane Handcock, and D Smoke, among others.

“Oakland is a historically Black city and one of the most diverse and progressive in the country — a city rich with culture,” said Nicole Lee, executive director of the Urban Peace Movement.

“At a time when we are being scapegoated for political gain and negative narratives of Oakland permeate the press, we’re uplifting who we truly are and all the things that make this region so special.”

About Urban Peace Movement: Urban Peace Movement (UPM) is a racial justice organization working to end mass incarceration and the criminalization of Black and Brown communities in Oakland. https://urbanpeacemovement.org/ @urbanpeace510

Kyung Jin Lee is the media representative for the Urban Peace Movement.

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Bay Area

California Makes Strides in Fight Against Fentanyl

California National Guard’s Counterdrug Task Force has seized over 7,000 pounds of fentanyl including 3.4 million pills since the state launched a multi-agency operation in January 2024. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the state’s progress on May 7, National Fentanyl Awareness Day. The Governor said he deployed the state’s highway patrol and National Guard personnel last year as part of a public safety operation in partnership with local government officials and law enforcement.

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In the past five years, California has invested $1.1 billion in operations and initiatives to fight crime, support local law enforcement, and improve public safety. The Newsom administration has implemented a comprehensive approach as part of the governor’s Master Plan to tackle the fentanyl and opioid crisis.

By California Black Media

California National Guard’s Counterdrug Task Force has seized over 7,000 pounds of fentanyl including 3.4 million pills since the state launched a multi-agency operation in January 2024.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the state’s progress on May 7, National Fentanyl Awareness Day.

The Governor said he deployed the state’s highway patrol and National Guard personnel last year as part of a public safety operation in partnership with local government officials and law enforcement.

“As we recognize the serious dangers of illegal fentanyl, California is continuing to tackle this issue head-on. Our efforts are getting this poison off our streets and out of our communities as we continue to support people struggling with substance use.” Newsom said.

CalGuard Major General Matthew Beevers said that the state’s unprecedented investment in the Counterdrug Task Force has immobilized operations and revenue channels of transnational criminal organizations.

“The CalGuard is committed to supporting our state, federal, local and tribal law enforcement partners to eliminate the scourge of fentanyl,” Beevers said.

In the past five years, California has invested $1.1 billion in operations and initiatives to fight crime, support local law enforcement, and improve public safety. The Newsom administration has implemented a comprehensive approach as part of the governor’s Master Plan to tackle the fentanyl and opioid crisis.

The Newsom administration has expanded efforts to improve public safety across the state where operations occurred in cities such as San Francisco, Oakland, and Bakersfield.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed acknowledged that joint operation was a step in the right direction toward curbing illegal activity and improving public safety.

“Our coordinated work to shut down drug markets in San Francisco is making a difference, but we have more work to do,” Breed said.

“Together we are sending a message at all levels of government that anyone selling fentanyl in this city will be arrested and prosecuted,” she said.

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Alameda County

Community Rally Demands Supervisors Merge Recall with Regular Elections

A group of community-based organizations rallied prior to the May 14 Alameda County Board of Supervisors’ vote to persuade the Board to vote to merge the recall election of District Attorney Pamela Price with the regularly scheduled election calendar in November. The groups urged the county to use the funds for healthcare and homelessness relief rather than a special election.

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Special to The Post
Special to The Post

By Post Staff

A group of community-based organizations rallied prior to the May 14 Alameda County Board of Supervisors’ vote to persuade the Board to vote to merge the recall election of District Attorney Pamela Price with the regularly scheduled election calendar in November.

The groups urged the county to use the funds for healthcare and homelessness relief rather than a special election.

Stewart Chen, a member of the Oakland Chinatown Improvement Council, told the Post that he and many members of the community-based participants supported the decision made by the Supervisors.

Chen said, “The voters voting in a special election in September will likely vote the same way in the November election. An extra two months won’t change people’s minds, but it will result in significant savings for the county. During times of financial uncertainty, especially when the county healthcare system is facing a huge deficit, it is unnecessary to waste taxpayers’ money on a special election that can easily wait two months.”

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