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Neighborhood Keeps the Pressure on Fresh Organics
By Liz Highleyman
Last month Noe Valley residents continued to organize in the wake of the abrupt Aug. 29 closure of the 24th Street Real Food Company and the firing of nearly 30 workers with no notice (see "Real Food Closes Amid Charges of Union-Busting," Voice, October 2003).
At the first of two town hall meetings held at the Noe Valley Ministry in October, Elizabeth Street resident Peter Gabel and Clipper Street resident Julie Traun presented an open letter to store owner Fresh Organics, Inc., a subsidiary of Utah-based vitamin manufacturer Nutraceutical Corporation. "We object in the strongest terms to behavior that is disrespectful to the workers, your longtime customers, and the community as a whole," read the letter. "We regard this sudden closure...as a violation of the fundamental human values of our progressive city and neighborhood."
The letter also called on Fresh Organics Vice President Bruce Remund and Marketing Director Sergio Diaz to immediately begin a good-faith "dialogue/ mediation" with ex-employees and neighborhood representatives. It warned that if the company failed to do so, "we will take whatever steps are necessary to maintain the ethical character of our neighborhood."
At that meeting and in the days that followed, 600 community members signed the letter, which was sent to Fresh Organics on Oct. 7. An ad hoc committee of activists also set up an ironing board outside the store each weekend, to raise awareness and gather additional signatures. By the end of the month, they had collected more than 1,450 signatures.
Meanwhile, a construction crew hired by Fresh Organics entered the papered-over storefront at 3939 24th Street and gutted the premises in preparation for remodeling. (Company representatives told the Voice in September that they initiated the remodeling to modernize the store and expand its organic meats, baked goods, and other product lines.) A job card on the door stated that the work would be completed by Jan. 24, 2004.
Company Shows Up at Town Hall
A second town hall meeting was held on Oct. 23, and at that gathering, Remund and Diaz made an unexpected appearance. The two Fresh Organics spokesmen were allotted 10 minutes to present their case.
"This is the first time we have closed a store, and in retrospect we could have done things differently," said Remund. "We have learned a lot of lessons."
Remund did not attempt to justify the firings, but stated in the store's defense, "We don't have a choice as employers about unions. If the employees want to go forward, I can't do anything about it."
Both he and Diaz emphasized that they would welcome a dialogue with the community.
Dialogue or no, a contingent of Real Food's ex-employees, charging that Fresh Organics illegally fired them for attempting to unionize, said they will continue to pursue lawsuits through the National Labor Relations Board. According to former employee Kim Rohrbach, the board is reviewing the evidence and may make a preliminary ruling by the beginning of November. But, she said, the process "could continue ad nauseum" before workers might see relief.
Protesters Explore Buying the Store
Despite the show of solidarity, community members and ex-employees have yet to reach a consensus about their ultimate goals. While some, including labor organizer Lisa Jaicks, favor using community pressure to demand Fresh Organics rehire the workers and recognize a union, others prefer pursuing community-based alternatives that cannot be controlled by an outside corporation.
A subcommittee formed in early October is exploring such alternatives, including finding a new local owner for the 24th Street store or purchasing and running it as a community-owned or worker-owned cooperative. At both town hall meetings, the co-op idea generated a lot of enthusiasm, but neighbors acknowledged this option would take long-term planning and fundraising.
"We are aware that there is a certain tension between trying to get Fresh Organics to reverse themselves, respect the workers' right to organize, and apologize through a mediated outcome, and developing momentum to purchase the store from them at the same time," said Gabel. "I think it's perfectly possible to pursue all avenues at once, but we as a community need to discuss how it all fits together."
Ministry to Host Farmer's Market
In the meantime, Noe Valleyans are rounding up new sources of organic produce for the neighborhood. With remarkable speed, local residents have arranged to hold a weekly farmer's market in the recently completed Noe Valley Ministry parking lot at the former site of Dan's Auto, on 24th near Vicksburg Street.
Organizers are still in the process of contacting farmers and determining the best day and time to set up the market (Saturday mornings from 8 a.m. to noon has been suggested). But if all goes according to plan, the market will open in November with a gala kickoff celebration.
To find out more about the employees' organizing effort, the farmer's market, and upcoming meetings, sign up for the e-mail list at reformrealfoods-subscribe @yahoogroups.com or http:// groups.yahoo.com/group/reformrealfoods/.