Urban Ore
The plumbing section at Urban Ore whose employees hope to unionize. Credit: Pete Rosos

Workers at Urban Ore announced Wednesday that they intend to unionize.

The workers at Berkeley’s last architectural salvage store are hoping to join the Industrial Workers of the World Union 670 and have filed a petition for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board. 

Organizers said they’re hoping to address understaffing, high turnover rates, and change the business’ wage structure through unionization. The store’s current wage structure, which fluctuates based on store profit and hours worked, exacerbates understaffing because it pads paychecks, said Urban Ore employee and organizing committee member Sarah Mossler. 

“It’s dangerous, quite frankly, the work that we do when we don’t have sufficient staffing,” Mossler said. “We’re lifting huge things. I’ve definitely been in situations before where I’m helping a customer lift a stove out of the truck, and we’ve been understaffed, and there’s no one who can help me.”

Business unexpectedly boomed at Urban Ore during the pandemic amid a spike in demand for secondhand clothes. Revenue has climbed 35% since 2019, according to the business’ organizing workers.

Union organizers are confident that they have support from the majority of workers, and intend to proceed with an official vote within the next four to six weeks, depending on whether the NLRB approves their petition. (As organizers felt the union would not be received well by the store’s owners, they opted not to seek voluntary recognition and instead file directly for recognition from the National Labor Relations Board.) 

Urban Ore owner Dan Knapp said he didn’t understand what the organizers hoped to achieve, and that he’s seen a “significant amount of rejection” of organizing efforts among workers, in major part due to his plans to switch the store over to a co-op model when he retires — one that he believes would make the business more democratic. 

In a 2017 KQED article, Knapp said he planned to retire and switch the business to employee ownership “as soon as possible.” Nearly five years later, the switch hasn’t happened due to financial constraints. In 2017, Knapp said he hired a consultant specializing in worker-owned cooperatives to look into whether they were in a financial position to transition: “They took a little look at our financials and they said, ‘You’re not strong enough to do this.'”

“It’s unfortunate that they’ve conveyed this hope to staff for so long and we still haven’t seen a co-op materialize,” employee and organizing committee member Benno Giammarinaro wrote in a text. “We’re unionizing because we hope to create a system for collective input that is similar to a co-op without having to do that on the owners’ timeline.”

Knapp maintained that his intentions haven’t changed. Urban Ore saw a boost in sales in July 2020, and he’s hopeful they’ll have the finances to finally switch to a co-op model this year.

“We’re going to go forward with the worker-owned cooperative anyway, and that’s our idea of getting out of the company. I’m 83 years old, Mary Lou [his wife and Urban Ore co-owner] is 70, and we both want out, and we’re going to try to do that this year. This is only going to accelerate that,” Knapp said.

Mossler said: “We’re just kind of tired of waiting,” adding that she does not view being unionized and being a co-op as mutually exclusive.

“It’s something that a lot of us really believe in and would really love to be part of, but we just want to be able to have a structure to be part of those conversations and have a vote in how that happens.” 

Correction: Urban Ore workers announced their intention to unionize on Wednesday, not Thursday as was stated in a previous version of this story.

This story has been updated after publication with additional information.

Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...