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Fired San Francisco Realfood Workers Get Boost

By David Lazarus - San Francisco Chronicle November 24, 2004.

Federal labor authorities say they expect to issue a complaint today against a Utah vitamin company that closed a San Francisco health-food store more than a year ago, allegedly to prevent its 30 workers from joining a union.

"We found that there is sufficient evidence that the National Labor Relations Act was violated," said Olivia Garcia, a deputy regional attorney for the National Labor Relations Board.

Barring a last-minute settlement -- which the Utah company, Nutraceutical International, insists won't happen because it did nothing wrong -- the federal complaint will lead to a trial within the next few months.

The case pitting an out-of-state corporation against San Francisco's feisty Noe Valley neighborhood has escalated far beyond the scope of typical community squabbles. Even House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat, has taken an interest.

"This decision has implications that extend far beyond Noe Valley," she told me by e-mail. "It sends a clear and strong message that workers' rights must and will be protected."

Steve Young, the former 49ers quarterback, has served on Nutraceutical's board since 1998. He couldn't be reached for comment.

Nutraceutical bought three of the five Bay Area Real Food Co. outlets in 2002 for $2.7 million. The Noe Valley branch was by far the most profitable, former employees say, and staffers believed joining a union would give them better benefits and working conditions.

Former employees say they told company officials about their plans to organize in early August 2003 and presented a list of demands. They said they were told that a meeting would be held in September to discuss the matter.

However, Nutraceutical closed the Noe Valley store with no warning to customers on Aug. 29, 2003. The company, which had informed workers only hours earlier that they were being let go, said the closure was part of long- standing renovation plans.

But Garcia at the National Labor Relations Board said federal investigators determined that the store was deliberately closed to prevent the Real Food workers from unionizing.

She said the board found evidence that Nutraceutical threatened employees in May 2003 that they could lose their jobs if they pursued plans to join a union.

Garcia also said investigators concluded that an awards program introduced by Nutraceutical a month later was intended solely to induce workers not to organize.

Moreover, she said evidence exists that the company told workers shortly before the Real Food closure that Nutraceutical would rather shutter the outlet than permit employees to join a union.

"They then took the extreme measure of closing the store under the guise of needing to remodel," Garcia said. "These actions were taken to interfere with the employees' right to organize."

The store remains closed.

Section 8 of the National Labor Relations Act says it's an unfair labor practice for employers "to interfere with, restrain or coerce employees" who seek union protection.

Stephen Hirschfeld, a San Francisco labor lawyer representing Nutraceutical, said the company is "very disappointed by what the NLRB is doing."

But he said Nutraceutical has no intention of backing down.

"We are absolutely confident that my client did nothing wrong and will be vindicated when this comes to trial," Hirschfeld said.

"There will absolutely not be a settlement in the case," he added. "We shouldn't be settling a case like this. It sends a wrong message to the community."

In response to the Real Food closure, the Noe Valley community has started its own farmers market and has submitted petitions calling for Nutraceutical to either rehire all fired workers or walk away from the outlet.

Peter Gabel, a Noe Valley resident who has spearheaded efforts to oppose Nutraceutical's actions, said he is dismayed that the company won't consider a settlement.

"That's the problem with this company," he said. "They've damaged the community for 15 months and don't think they've done anything wrong."

Gabel added: "This is our community. When an out-of-state corporation refuses to acknowledge the community's ethical values, it's wrong."

Bevan Dufty, who represents Noe Valley on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, said that since Real Food was closed, at least a half-dozen other nearby shops have gone belly-up or moved away.

He said this entire episode has been "bad across the board. It's been bad for the workers, and it's been bad for the community."

Still, Dufty is hopeful that a detente can be reached with Nutraceutical if it is determined to remain in the neighborhood despite all the bad blood that now exists.

"It will be tough," he said. "It's a challenge we have to work on."

Hirschfeld, the Nutraceutical lawyer, said the company believes that once the case is resolved in Nutraceutical's favor, bygones will be bygones.

"My client is absolutely convinced that when this whole process is behind us, we'll be able to mend fences with the community," he said.

That remains to be seen. Kim Rohrbach, one of the fired Real Food workers, said the National Labor Relations Board complaint vindicates the anti- Nutraceutical stance taken by Noe Valley residents.

"After 15 months, it's welcome news," she said.

Rohrbach also said that despite everything that has happened, she's still eager to get her old job back -- but not because Nutraceutical is such a great company to work for.

"I would go back to work for them because people in a position of power need to be stood up against," Rohrbach said.

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