Fired Worker Sparks Organizing Campaign at Family-Owned Chicago Grocery

Kari Lydersen

Raul Real is happy to be free of Pete's Fresh Market, but he continues to fight for the rights of workers at the family-owned chain.

Getting fired from Pete’s Fresh Market, a family-owned grocery chain concentrated in Chicago’s south-side Latino neighborhoods, was not at all upsetting for Raul Real.

Real started working at the meat market of a Pete’s Market in the Little Village neighborhood in February 2009, after having previously worked at a meat market at a Jewel grocery store. The Jewel store was unionized by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), but he had never thought much about or appreciated the union.

At Pete’s, he soon saw things were quite differently, with — as he describes it — subpar working conditions, almost no benefits and constant disrespect and mistreatment by management. So Real, who is 25, decided to float the idea of unionization, and he got in contact with the UFCW and the ARISE Chicago Worker Center (affiliated with the national group Interfaith Worker Justice).

Other workers were very interested, he said, and word was spreading. Organizers and workers began holding secret meetings” with employees from Pete’s eight different Chicago area locations. Stories of harassment, mistreatment and dissatisfaction were rampant, but workers were generally afraid to speak up for fear of losing their jobs.

Then in November 2009, Real was late for a 5 a.m. shift — for the first time, he says — and was fired. He sees it as blatant retaliation for his organizing efforts. In the weeks after he had started the unionizing campaign, Real said, management frequently flipped his schedule so that he would have to work consecutive 2 pm.. to 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. shifts, which were exhausting.

I wasn’t a rebel or anything, I don’t have anything against stores operating and selling things to people, I just was standing my ground,” said Real, who notes that he is not affiliated with any specific group or union and does not have any interest in the situation other than fair treatment for the workers.

On March 6, workers and supporters held a rally at the Pete’s location where Real worked. He said two of the brothers who own the chain were across the street chatting with police officers. One of Real’s friends, also a long-time Pete’s customer, had a camera in the store and was threatened with arrest. He said carts were used to block the entrances of the store so picketers couldn’t enter. 

Then police officers told Real and several other friends and organizers to leave the area. They refused to leave without their friend who was stuck inside. Ultimately, Real and two others were arrested. They have a court date on misdemeanor charges, including trespassing on private property, on April 15.

Real expects the charges may be dropped, but he hopes their treatment helps draw attention to what he and others call the abusive and arbitrary treatment of vulnerable workers at Pete’s Market’s various locations. Real doesn’t want his job at Pete’s back; he has no desire to work there again. But as someone who was born in the U.S. and speaks English as his native language, he feels it is his duty to speak up for intimidated workers.

The complaints reported by workers include lack of compensation for injuries on the job, lack of benefits, harassment from management and wage theft. The UFCW has also filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board regarding the firing of pregnant employees.

A spokesperson for Pete’s Fresh Market did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the allegations.

Real said he knows several meat market workers who were seriously cut on the job — one lost finger tips — but received no workers compensation or even medical bill payments. He said workers are offered health insurance, but the premiums are so high few can afford it. They get one week of paid vacation after their first year, but some workers are denied it if things get busy. And, he says, wages are so low that many don’t even want to take vacations because they will miss the overtime they might otherwise be paid.

Seeing co-workers not even being able to enjoy any downtime with their families, that bothers me,” Real said. 

There is also always a shortage of uniforms, workers say, which is especially problematic for meat market employees. They may only get one fresh uniform a week, that gets bloody and sweaty each day— and they then have to launder it themselves or wear it filthy.

Workers end up fighting each other over uniforms, when they should be fighting management,” Real said.

They are not compensated for time spent in line waiting to clock in or clock out, Real said, an amount he and organizers estimate at about $600 per worker per year. Workers also say they are cheated out of overtime when managers promise – often without delivering – to credit hours above 40 to the next week.

You might work 60 hours and they wouldn’t pay you for it all,” Real said. Then they’d say Oh we’ll fix it, we’ll fix it.’ They tried that with me, but I was like no way, there’s money missing here.”

Workers who guard the parking lot are also docked $150 for any carts that go missing, Real said, even though they are too understaffed to adequately police the lot. And in at least one Pete’s location, there were also serious charges of sexual harassment, and the alleged harasser, Real said, was simply moved to another location rather than investigated.

There’s constant harassment of workers, verbally and physically, and people feel like they can’t say anything,” Real said. People need to pay rent and put food on the table. I’m single, I don’t have kids, so I feel like I can be more of an activist.”

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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