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Working In These Times

Sunday, Mar 18, 2012, 12:05 pm

San Franciscans Clash With U.K. Grocer Over Labor Practices, Job Creation

BY Rose Arrieta

SAN FRANCISCO—A British-owned grocery chain with a history of unfriendly labor relations in the United States is looking to open its doors in San Francisco’s Mission District. Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market plans to build on a site that used to host two local grocery stores.

But while the arrival of another source of fresh produce is a promising development, Fresh & Easy's past suggests it may bring labor struggles as well. Many local residents worry about the company's labor practics, and about the impact the store would have on small mom-and-pop grocery stores. There are eight such businesses within three blocks of the proposed Fresh & Easy site. 

On Thursday, dozens of community members attended a San Francisco Planning Commission hearing where the food chain is applying for a conditional use permit. 

“In communities that they have been in the last four years, they have not kept their promises. They are blocking employees from advocating for improvements. We’ve been hearing horror stories,” Oscar Grande told In These Times. Grande, who testified at the hearing and has spoken with workers in other stores about their treatment, is a community organizer at People Organizing to Demand Environmental & Economic Rights (PODER).

Since expanding operations to the U.S. in 2007, the chain has opened more than 180 stores throughout California, Nevada and Arizona.

Groups representing local residents say they want 100 percent of jobs at the proposed store to go to local residents—and they want them to be full-time living-wage jobs. Fresh & Easy typically offers many of its workers part-time, low-wage positions. 

Although the Commission approved a conditional permit, activists say they’ll take the issue to the Board of Supervisors. 

“When they come into the community, off the bat they’re going to hire 40 workers. But within a few weeks that’s going to dwindle to 20 workers because they use machines to check out shoppers,” Grande said.

One community member who works at Arriba Juntos, a local group that promotes economic self-sufficiency for San Franciscans and their families through training and job opportunities, told commissioners she thought it was a “great thing” that the company was trying to move into the site. “Fresh & Easy is working with us to provide positions for 25-35 people,” she said. But when approached after the meeting, she said there was no written agreement with the store yet.

That’s one of the things several of the Commissioners voiced concerns about. They asked whether there was any kind of enforcement system in place to ensure local hire promises are kept.

The store has called itself a start-up business as it lobbies for support in the Mission district, an area filled with numerous mom-and-pop stores, (bakeries and open fruit markets. But its parent company is Tesco, a British multinational grocery and general merchandise retailer with headquarters in Cheshunt, United Kingdom.

Gordon Mar of Jobs with Justice told commissioners, “Tesco has 3,000 stores in 14 countries and three continents. It doesn’t, with a straight face, fall even remotely into the category of a ‘local’ grocery chain. And, existing research indicates that the 20 or more job opportunities by Tesco would most likely be offset by jobs lost as nearby retailers downsize and  these lost jobs in some cases pay better than the jobs created by Fresh & Easy.”

He added that allowing the store to go up would not help local businesses or the community at large, and that only 16 cents out of every $1 made at a megastore like Tesco stays in the community.

Existing research shows that money earned by independent businesses is more likely to circulate within the neighborhood and city economy then money earned by mega-businesses whose headquarters are located outside of the country.

Human Rights Watch: Company is aggressively anti-union

A report issued in 2010 by Human Rights Watch, based in New York, said Fresh & Easy was one of a handful of companies doing business in the United States that have been "carrying out aggressive campaigns to keep their employees in the United States from organizing and bargaining, violating international standards and, often, U.S. labor laws."

"Many European companies that publicly embrace workers' rights under global labor standards nevertheless undermine workers' rights in their U.S. operations," a Human Rights Watch spokesperson says in the report. "Tesco is one of those European companies."

One former Fresh & Easy San Diego worker featured in the Human Rights Watch report, titled "A Strange Case: Violations of Workers' Freedom of Association in the United States by European Multinational Corporations," said, "It was constantly driven home to us in team-lead meetings that we should tell employees they have no need for the union, that the company will take care of them so they don't need a union. When the union started passing out flyers outside our store, my manager told us, 'You don't want to be part of it. These are not the right people for you.'"

Said another former San Diego worker: "We had lots of issues. The time sheets were confusing. They had us working through breaks and lunch. People lost a lot of money. I would bring up people's pay problems and management would tell me to tell them... 'If you don't like it, there's the door.'"

Responding to that report, Tesco said in a statement: "Wherever we operate, all staff are free to join trade unions and we have positive relations with trade unions around the world...This report is a further example of misleading allegations being used to misrepresent our position."

A campaign by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union to Fresh & Easy organize stores has been underway since 2007.

Just last week, UFCW Local 8 put up informational picket lines at two brand-new Fresh & Easy stores in Sacramento. More picket lines as set to go up as the chain opens three more stores in nearby areas.

Jacques Loveall, president of Local 8-Golden State, told Supermarket News that the union is asking consumer to shop at unionized stores because Tesco "is siphoning money out of our community.”

She added, "California has enough challenges without a foreign company coming in with substandard jobs that threaten good local companies that bring value and good jobs to our community. It's bad enough good American jobs are exported overseas at an alarming rate. Now this global giant from the U.K. is coming to our country thinking it can take advantage of American workers on our own turf. We will not allow that to happen."

Fresh & Easy countered: "We’re thrilled to have created more than 150 jobs with good pay and healthcare benefits in Sacramento—and certainly the hundreds of Sacramentans who applied for open positions agree that Fresh & Easy is a great place to work."

Rose Arrieta was born and raised in Los Angeles. She has worked in print, broadcast and radio, both mainstream and community oriented—including being a former editor of the Bay Area’s independent community bilingual biweekly El Tecolote. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she is a freelance journalist writing for a variety of outlets on social justice issues.

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