Bulk food stockers of the world unite


Goddess willing, the next District 8 supervisor will finally solve the fate of the long-shuttered site of The Real Food Company on 24th Street.

When I was born, my parents bought a weird old house in Noe Valley, made to resemble a 19th century merchant marine ship. In the 1970s, hippies and leftists moved in alongside Irish and Italian blue-collar families. Our neighbors worked as cashiers at Bell Market, which is now Whole Foods.

Real Food on 24th Street was a pioneering health food store dating back to the 1960s, the second of five to be opened by Kimball Allen and his wife Jane. The Allens also owned the defunct Kimball’s jazz clubs.

In the mid-1990s, workers at Real Food attempted to unionize with the United Food and Commercial Workers; UFCW represents grocery workers at chains like Safeway nationwide. Allen hired the notorious union-busting law firm Littler Mendelson to thwart the union. It’s not really a surprise that someone who likes local organic produce and sustainable kiefer doesn’t want his workers to talk back. The election ended in a tie, meaning no union.

A couple years later, I was looking for ways to unionize young workers. A UFCW organizer told me they were interested in taking another shot at Real Food. I got a job as a cashier. I learned to distinguish arugula from mizuna and was trained to be the cheese guy. (Did you know the holes in swiss cheese are bacteria farts?)

It quickly became clear there would be no unionization. While it was objectively true in a Marxist sense that all workers are exploited and could benefit from unionization, Real Food workers did not experience their conditions in terms of class exploitation. We had a groovy work vibe, never saw the boss. One of the wholesalers who delivered cakes left us extra cake. It’s hard to rub raw the wounds of discontent when your job has “Free Cake Day.”

After an internal election upset in UFCW, the new leadership lacked interest in young workers with a passion for bulk amaranth.

The Allens sold Real Food to Utah-based Nutraceutricals. They were a vitamin and supplement company acquiring health food stores to integrate distribution. A new crop of workers wanted to try unionizing again and tracked me down to help.

At the time, Berkeley Bowl workers were organizing, and there was union talk at several Whole Foods and Real Food sites. I approached UFCW with a proposal to organize the health food industry en masse. Earlier, I had learned the vital lesson of how to lose. UFCW’s organizers in the ’90s focused on the legal and procedural steps to get a union certified and begin collective bargaining, without a strategy to build power to improve working conditions in an industry. Unions are, after all, a labor market intervention. Trying to organize everyone at once seemed to me a more promising intervention than scattered elections.

UFCW still wasn’t interested in health food, so Real Food organized on their own. Nutraceuticals closed in retaliation and abruptly laid off all the workers, winning back pay in court years later.

The closure provoked a Noe Valley version of outrage — more about the loss of organic peaches than union-busting. Outrage led to the farmers market, and the ever-richer forgot the workers when Whole Foods arrived. Apparently, the building was finally bought by a private equity firm who plans to sell it to a developer. There will, no doubt, be a neighborhood fight over how tall the developer can build. It’s adorable to watch state Sen. Scott Wiener denounce NIMBYs without mentioning that he never challenged NIMBYs in District 8 when they picked him as their supervisor.

Hopefully, the next supervisor will demonstrate San Francisco values and not indulge an abandoned building in a dozen years of blight as a reminder of what happens to workers with the nerve to seek a voice in their workplace.

Nato Green is a comedian currently in exile in Cuba. His second album of standup comedy, “The Whiteness Album,” will be released Jan. 26 by Blonde Medicine Records on all normal channels that stream or download comedy.

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