At a community meeting this week for the proposed Fresh & Easy store in the Mission, it didn’t take long for the 800-pound gorilla in the room to come out: unions.
On one side were some of the city’s most progressive residents, who are sympathetic toward unions; on the other, a grocery store chain who has been accused by Human Rights Watch of creating an anti-union atmosphere at its stores.
Fresh & Easy, a subsidiary of Tesco, the third largest retailer in the world, plans to open a neighborhood market at the former Delano’s site at 1245 South Van Ness Ave.
“You are a non-union shop and you can do whatever you want,” a man said at Wednesday’s meeting at Cesar Chavez Elementary School cafeteria, which was attended by 80 people. “That’s why we want something in writing.”
“You are entitled to think that,” responded Brendan Wonnacott, Fresh & Easy’s director of neighborhood affairs. “At the end of the day, if we don’t fulfill our promise, our community will tell us. Our workers will tell us.”
The heart of the matter is doing what’s best for the neighborhood, said Jim Salinas, a lifelong Mission resident and a member of the Carpenters Local Union No. 22.
Unions are the best way to ensure that employees are paid a livable wage and guaranteed job security, he said.
“That’s the only way I know how,” Salinas said. “The community knows what it wants — it just doesn’t know how to get it.”
Not everyone agreed.
“You can’t be picky right now,” said Carmen Benedet, the owner of Liberty Tax on 24th Street. “If you get so picky with the union thing, you may get nothing.”
Salinas argued otherwise.
“We need to set the bar higher,” he said. He pointed to Fresh & Easy’s agreement to hire unionized contractors at its Bayview location.
The company plans to hire about 25 employees at the South Van Ness store and offer full benefits to those who work more than 20 hours, Wonnacott said. He also pointed to the recently opened Bayview store, where 60 percent of the employees are from the neighborhood.
But that didn’t silence the skeptics. John Valdez, the owner of Banner Uniform, a retail store on 24th and Mission that specializes in work apparel, pressed Wonnacott on the company’s policies.
Among the residents’ complaints was the company’s sole use of self-checkout lanes, which some at the meeting called an “anti-labor” system. Some worried that it might make it easier for underage customers to steal alcohol, or that it would mean fewer employees.
Wonnacott responded that no one would be able to purchase alcohol at Fresh & Easy without an employee checking their ID. As for cutting labor costs, the system allows employees to have more interaction with customers and spend more time on the sales floor, he said. It’s not clear how a new state law banning the sale of alcohol at self-checkout counters would affect the store, Wonnacott said, as the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) has not indicated how it plans to implement the law.
Wonnacott also pointed to Fresh & Easy’s partnership with Arriba Juntos, a neighborhood nonprofit that trains employees, as evidence of the store’s intentions.
“We are a neighborhood market, so it makes sense to hire from the neighborhood,” he said. “That’s why we partner locally.”
But while Wonnacott said that he welcomes suggestions, he did not promise residents anything. Organizers remain unconvinced.
“Without anything in writing, these are just empty promises,” said Oscar Grande, the executive director of People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights.
This was the third community meeting in what would likely be a long process, Wonnacott said. At this time there is no projected date on when the store will open.