Noe Valley Voice February 2005

Real Food Trial Set for March 21

By Liz Highleyman

Construction work has finally gotten under way at the Real Food Company store on 24th Street, but a legal battle continues to rage over the firing of nearly 30 workers in late August 2003, when Real Food's parent company, Utah-based Nutraceutical Corporation, abruptly closed the store.

As reported in the Rumors column in the December issue of the Noe Valley Voice, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a complaint against Nutraceutical on Nov. 26 concerning multiple charges of unfair labor practices. According to NLRB deputy regional attorney Olivia Garcia, the board found "sufficient evidence" that Nutraceutical pressured employees not to organize, threatened workers with loss of their jobs, and closed the 24th Street store when it learned employees were attempting to bring in a union.

But the parties in the dispute disagree about what the complaint means.

"It's welcome news," said Kim Rohrbach, a former Real Food employee. "In plain English, [the board found] there was union-busting going on."

Speaking on behalf of Nutraceutical Corporation, Stephen Hirschfeld of the labor law firm Curiale, Dellaverson, Hirschfeld & Kramer told the Voice that the NLRB is required to investigate and issue a report any time it receives an allegation concerning labor law violations. "It's a real myth that by issuing a complaint, the NLRB has made a determination of guilt or innocence," he said. "Nothing is further from the truth.

"The company's position remains that there was no reason for the temporary closure other than renovations, and [the closure] had absolutely nothing to do with the employees' interest in unionizing," Hirschfeld continued. The employee terminations mentioned in the complaint, he added, occurred "for legitimate reasons due to performance issues, not union activities."

NLRB field attorney David Reeves told the Voice that a complaint is issued when a five-member adjudicatory board finds "reasonable cause" that a violation of the National Labor Relations Act has occurred. Because the company contested the charges, the case will now go before an administrative law judge. The hearing will take place March 21 at 901 Market Street, and is open to the public.

Should Nutraceutical disagree with the judge's decision, it can appeal to the full NLRB. If the company continues to contest the board's final decision, the case enters the regular legal system, going before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court.

"I suspect the company will drag this out as long as possible," said Rohrbach. "Depending on its willingness to spend money, it can probably fight this for years."

Activists Keep Up Pressure

In the meantime, a group of Noe Valley residents continues to insist that Nutraceutical must make amends for its treatment of the ex-employees and for its alleged disregard for the neighborhood. At a meeting on Jan. 27, about a dozen activists discussed further steps to pressure the company.

"They've been closed for 16 months, and it's done significant harm to the community. They have to redeem themselves with the neighborhood, or they shouldn't be here," said group member Peter Gabel, who lives on Elizabeth Street. "What we really want is for them to not renew their lease. We want a locally owned store that has wonderful health food and is in harmony with the values of the neighborhood. If that happened, all our grievances would be resolved."

Barring such an outcome, local activists are asking neighborhood residents to pledge not to shop at the Real Food outlet on 24th Street unless the company agrees to adopt a union-neutral stance and rehire the terminated workers. So far, they have collected nearly 1,400 pledges. They are also continuing their call to boycott Nutraceutical's brands of vitamins.

On Dec. 18, members of the group staged a mock press conference by "Nutra-Scrooge" (played by San Francisco actor Drew Letchworth), at the Noe Valley Farmers' Market on 24th Street. The Saturday-morning market, which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, was founded by many of the same people involved in the Real Food protests.

In addition, the activists have asked District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty--as well as Supervisors Jake McGoldrick and Ross Mirkarimi, who also have Nutraceutical-owned stores in their district--to sponsor a new resolution asserting continued support for the former Real Food workers. The Board of Supervisors first passed such a resolution in September 2003, soon after the store's closure.

Finally, the neighborhood activists hope to mobilize a large turnout for the March 21 NLRB hearing. Their next community meeting is scheduled for March 10 at the Noe Valley Ministry.

"We have to keep going," local resident Mary Scheib told the Voice at the Jan. 29 Farmers' Market. "Such a long campaign seems overwhelming sometimes, but it's really quite powerful that we've stuck together for more than a year and are continuing to take action against a company that treats the community poorly."

Store Could Reopen This Summer

Meanwhile, after more than a year of delays, construction work on the Real Food building at 3939 24th Street began in early January. According to Hirschfeld, a basic agreement with the building's owners, Jane and Kimball Allen of Marin County, was finally struck in late December, although there are "still some ongoing disputes regarding details of what needs to be done and who's responsible for paying for it."

Jane Allen told the Voice that she will finance repairs and strengthening of the building, but not a full retrofit. The San Francisco Department of Building Inspection issued a permit on Dec. 20, covering repair of water damage, structural improvements, and accessibility upgrades; the current permit covers some $90,000 worth of work and extends until June 27. Allen expects her part of the work to be completed by the end of February, but when it comes to construction, she said, "I've learned the hard way that estimates are always very rough."

Nutraceutical holds an option to lease the property for 12 years, renewable in three-year increments. Although the lease was scheduled to be up for renewal in March, Hirschfeld said it had been modified to give the corporation the option to renew once the structural work is completed. "The company's current intent is to renew," he told the Voice.

Hirschfeld added that Nutraceutical expects to complete "cosmetic alterations" within about 90 days after the structural repairs are done. "We're probably realistically looking at late spring or early summer," he said.

Will the reopening of the store finally bring peace to the neighborhood?

Bevan Dufty remains skeptical. "If anything can make matters worse, going through the NLRB trial process will do so," said the supervisor, who told the Voice he has made some 30 unreturned phone calls to Nutraceutical over the past few months. "I just wish they'd come to the table and try to work things out with the neighborhood."