That Stanford University employees now have a successful union is due, in good measure, to someone whom few of them know or remember—Jim Berk, who died recently.
Jim began organizing at Stanford in the late 1960s, and was one of the founders of United Stanford Employees, which subsequently affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and was eventually absorbed—after Jim left—into SEIU Local 715.
I think it’s safe to say that during the early and mid 1970s Jim pretty well drove Stanford crazy. Back then, though it had long outgrown its image as
The Farm, Stanford still treated its non-academic, nonprofessional workers as the help. It fancied itself a benevolent padrone.
With the exception of SLAC, which never pretended to be anything other than the big business it was, Stanford’s employee-relations operation, such as it existed, was decentralized and pretty much ad hoc. Jim, who started as an engineer at SLAC and later gave it up to become a full-time union representative, would have none of it. And he was never reticent about letting Stanford managers know exactly what he thought of their benevolent pose.
Jim was extremely bright, and able quickly to assimilate the university’s financial and organizational intricacies. He was also highly focused, and once he locked onto an issue, he wouldn’t—couldn’t—give up. He locked onto the union project in the spring of 1969 and by September USE was officially formed. After several years as an independent union, in a key vote April 12, 1973, nearly 75 percent of USE members voted 223 to 15 to affiliate with SEIU, and USE became Local 680.
A good example of Jim’s energy is that early on, before USE’s affiliation with SEIU and its victory in a National Labor Relation Board election, Stanford inaugurated a formal grievance procedure—partly to demonstrate that workers didn’t really need a union and partly to feed its own good-guy self-image.
The procedure permitted employees to have a representative. Jim and the staff that had gathered around him began representing grievants, and succeeded in turning the grievance procedure into a potent organizing tool. Stanford, though it desperately wanted to, couldn’t find a way to back out.
That, along with an energetic and dedicated staff, good day-to-day organizing and an excellent newspaper, led to its victory in a June 1973 runoff NLRB election. Winning the election was only the first step. A decent contract had to be negotiated, and Stanford, by then, had wised up and hired as its chief negotiator Doug Barton, the NLRB lawyer who had presided over the hearings that led to the election.
The negotiations, with Jim as the chief union spokesperson, went on for several months. Bargaining was difficult and at times acrimonious. Frustrated with Stanford’s unwillingness to agree to what it considered reasonable terms, the union went on strike, from May 10 to June 4, 1974. With the help of a federal mediator and assistance from SEIU International representatives, the strike ended and the first labor agreement at Stanford was finally signed in June l974.
Employees at Stanford Hospital had been excluded from the original election, so USE undertook—in addition to servicing and policing the agreement it had just negotiated—an extensive campaign to organize the hospital workers. Again, Jim was the leading strategist and organizer. Eventually, a vote was held, but the union lost. Only later did it achieve recognition.
Working with Jim was no easy matter. He could be acerbic as hell. And pigheaded. But I have to say he was one of the few clients I’ve ever had who knew exactly how to use lawyers. He was smart enough (an intelligent client is always a pleasure) to quickly grasp legal concepts and jargon, and he was not one to be intimidated by anything or anyone, including law and lawyers.
He knew he could do it himself if he had to, but if he didn’t have time or there was some other good reason, he’d use a lawyer.
It was easy to pick a quarrel with Jim, or he with you. If he thought you were acting stupid, he said so. Often, he was right, but sometimes he was dead wrong.
The union’s Executive Board respected Jim’s talents and dedication, and so for a long while the members tolerated his idiosyncrasies. But eventually his acerbic manner and “do it my way or no way” attitude poisoned the relationship.
They rebelled and essentially threw him out. Afterwards he came over to my office. When I tried to explain that I had to side with the union because it was my client, he let me know that he considered it a betrayal. That was the last I ever saw of him.
Unfortunately for the union, there was no one with Jim’s talent, energy and dedication to take over, and so for a good while it languished. Eventually, it was absorbed into SEIU Local 715. I left in 1980.
James Wolpman is a Stanford law graduate who in the late 1960s and 1970s represented union and counterculture individuals and organizations in legal clashes. In addition to representing the early Stanford union, he represented the former Midpeninsula Free University and was a founder of the Palo Alto Law Commune. In 1982 he was named chief judge for the Agricultural Labor Relations Board in Sacramento, moved to Cal OSHA in 1994 and retired to Walnut Creek in 2002.
Jim Berk, a key organizer of Stanford University employees in the formation of their first union in the late 1960s, died at his San Francisco apartment, January 1, following a brief illness relating to a heart condition. He was in his late 70s. Berk was an electrical engineer who had been involved in the early years of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), but he soon became best known for his union organizing efforts—first at SLAC and later at all of Stanford and Stanford Hospital—and for his acerbic personal style. Prior to joining SLAC, he worked at the University of California, Berkeley.
At SLAC, he worked on trigger systems, the beginning of the bombardment process for atomic-level particles. He was a native of Chicago and received a degree in electrical engineering from the City College of New York. He moved to the Palo Alto area with his second wife, Ida Berk, who later became active in East Palo Alto community affairs and served on the city’s Planning Commission prior to her death in 2003. They divorced soon after moving to the area, however.
Berk later married Glenda Jones, who also was involved in the union-organizing movement and who served as president of the union during its stormiest years. During the stormy, often acrimonious union-organizing years, Berk played a strong role in forming the United Stanford Employees (USE) Union in 1968, which voted overwhelmingly in the spring of 1973 to affiliate with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), becoming Local 680. But his personal style and short fuse temper alienated others in the union, and he was forced out in 1978.
The union local later became part of SEIU Local 715. In the early 1990s, Berk moved to San Francisco where he became involved with community efforts to clean up the neighborhood, targeting trash and graffiti in the South of Market area. He helped form the Safe on Sixth (Street) organization and regularly led clean-up teams through the area. He worked for some time as assistant manager of the Silver Creek Senior Center prior to his retirement.
In his later years, Berk mellowed personally, according to his son Jason Berk of Palo Alto.
He got grandchildren—he became a grandfather, and he calmed down, Jason said. He is survived by another son, Tosha, and two daughters from his first marriage: Linda and Imani Berk. He has three grandchildren, Arthur Berk, 28, Daniel Berk, 21, and Jasmine Berk, 15, the children of Jason and Rosemary Berk of Palo Alto; and three great-grandchildren, the children of Arthur Berk of Alburquerque, New Mexico.
Jim's children (Jason and Tosha Berk of East Palo Alto, and Linda and Imani Berk of New York) called for this memorial event held on Sunday, April 2, 2006, at the Baylands Interpretive Center, located at far north end of Embaradero Road; i.e.. at the edge of the Bay.
Jim Berk's children and extended family were joined by contributors from other aspects of Jim's life. Many of the early Stanford union organizers attended, including Glenda Jones whose production, writing, and leadership created a strong union newspaper, Employees Organize. At the memorial, candor prevailed in testimonials.
From 1962–1973, Jim was employed as a digital logic design engineer at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, before such circuitry and computers became common. He designed, installed, and checked-out state-of-art logic designs for critical radiation safety and personnel protection systems. Often his designs were unique, elaborate, and critical to operations of the accelerator and research programs. He brought great energy and independence of action into the research environment. Over that same time period, Jim responded to demands from staff for job security and decent treatment by leading a drive for unionization. He brought uncommon dedication and talent to both domains.
The precursor to Stanford's current union, USW of SEIU 715, was recognized as a bargaining unit in 1973 after a period of determined organizing by a broad coalition of Stanford employees—led in 1968–1973 with great energy by Jim Berk. Jim carried on as USW's president from 1973–1978. No one who dealt with Jim Berk about union issues will ever forget him.
No stranger to controversy, inside the union and out, Jim emerged as Stanford's union leader. His democratic unionism could be brilliant or flawed, always a work in progress, evolving over time to USW's current place in SEIU 715.
In his later years, Jim was a leader in the interests of the aged, the homeless, and poor renters in the South of Market district of San Francisco. He organized resistance to the condo gentrification of low-income apartments. He facilitated "South of Market Association" (SOMA), merchant-paid projects doing area and graffiti cleanups. Worked by otherwise unemployed locals, Jim's last group was called,
Safe on Sixth Street (S-O-S). Jim was an organizer to the end.
Jim Berk, Palo Alto Weekly, March 29, 2006; posted on peacework.us. Link
Remembering Jim Berk, Gadfly Father of the Stanford Employees’ Union, by Jim Wolpman, Palo Alto Weekly, March 29, 2006; posted on peacework.us. Link
United Stanford Workers Founder Jim Berk Will Be Remembered, April 2, 2006; posted on peacework.us. Link
Jim Berk Memorial Pictures, posted on peacework.us. Link
United Stanford Employees, 1969-1974; posted on www.truher.net. Link