It is human nature to form our opinions out of small bits of available information, a large dose of personal experience, with random bits of stuff we’ve heard from other sources thrown in; that’s how we figure out the world. Unfortunately, all too often we form our opinions based on too little information combined with too much “stuff we’ve heard”—and that’s how we wind up with bigotry and prejudice.
For instance, when you drive by Metro Lighting in West Berkeley and see picketers holding signs that say “Union Busters” and the like, you might assume that the owners have been unfair in some way to their employees. Because labor unions are good, right? And only business owners who have mistreated their employees would wind up with picketers, no? However, this is a situation where too few facts are mixed up with too much “stuff”; no employees have been wronged, no union has been busted. The true victims are Metro’s owners, Lawrence Grown and Christa Rybczynski, who are under siege by a group of former employees who, amazingly, are attempting to take over their hard-won, sustainable business. Waves of anxiety are rolling up and down San Pablo Avenue, because every small business owner knows what’s going on, and each of them knows they could be next.
Lawrence and Christa, architects with green leanings, opened the business in their basement with credit cards. Metro is a certified green business, and three years ago they went into debt outfitting their leased space with solar panels. Their handcrafted lighting fixtures have been so popular that they have been able to hire craftspeople and sales associates; their salespeople receive an average of $17 an hour, their craftspeople up to $19 an hour. Full-time employees receive fully paid health benefits, vacation, sick, and holiday pay, plus matching retirement funds. I can think of few businesses of this size—or larger—who offer employees compensation this rich, or show this much dedication to community and environmental responsibility.
So what on earth went wrong at Metro Lighting? It is apparently a situation where the owners, striving to be generous and compassionate, practically “gave away the store.” They let performance issues slide, forgave infractions, continued to pay for full-time benefits for an employee whose schedule had changed to part-time; being kind seemed more important than sticking to the rules. Lawrence and Christa even co-signed a mortgage with one of their employees to help him become a homeowner; he has returned the favor by defaulting on the mortgage, forcing them to pay it. Unfortunately, all of this largesse led to employees with feelings of entitlement; some even came to believe that they had as much right to own the business as the people who had built it with hard work, risk-taking and creativity.
And the accusations from the picketers? Union busting, lockouts, ageism, toxic waste exposure, unsafe working conditions, unfair wages… you will see that these were all fabricated to support a plot which brings new meaning to the words “hostile takeover.” So, union busting. What would you do if several of your workers walked into a staff meeting one morning with a representative from the Industrial Workers of the World and announced that your store was now under their aegis? No discussion, no election, no communication with the National Labor Relations Board, no card check, no indication that the other employees wanted to join? What if they demanded a 100 percent wage increase? How about if they demanded that employment be unconditional—no performance requirements whatsoever? Amazingly, each of these things really happened.
Now, what would you do if you said words to the effect of “we need to make sure that everyone wants a union” and “a 100 percent wage increase would cause the business to go under, but we’ll start a new bonus plan” in response to these things and they told you “you’d be sorry,” and staged work slow downs and work stoppages and blew off mandatory staff meetings? How about if one day, in the midst of all this, a fully trained employee was performing the routine task of disposing of a slightly noxious chemical substance (akin to lye), and the agitating employees decided that this was the perfect time to stage a walkout, and to accuse you of exposing them to hazardous waste? Yes, this also happened, and visits from the City of Berkeley’s Toxic Management Division (no toxic release found) Cal OSHA (2 visits, no violations), Workers’ Compensation Loss Prevention (no issues) and environmental consultants (no hazards found) yielded no violations, but this group of disgruntled employees insists they were exposed to toxic waste; the inspectors were “incompetent.” These same employees say they were “locked out” of work; they actually had their own keys and could have entered at any time. In short, it’s a nightmare.
I direct your attention to the constitutional preamble of the Industrial Workers of the World, which can be found at www.iww.org/en/node: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common….Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, (and) abolish the wage system…” Yes, the true intention of the pickets is not to improve their working situation; it is to take over Metro Lighting, or to drive them out of business trying. And they intend to do it by getting YOU to help by boycotting the business. Just another one of those “only in Berkeley” moments that people love to roll their eyeballs over, I know. And it would be comical – except that it is destroying the lives, mental health, and business of the Rybczynski-Growns, decent people in the finest Berkeley tradition.
Unions are supposed to protect the powerless from having their rights trampled on, but in this situation, the people most in need of protection are not blocking the entrance to Metro Lighting dressed in jackboots, menacing the customers.
We here in Berkeley have a long and proud history of “speaking truth to power.” If you wish to continue the tradition, perhaps this is a good time to go shopping for a lighting fixture. Lawrence and Christa could use your support.
Christine Staples is a West Berkeley resident.