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

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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