Labor Battle Ripens Over Proposed Fresh & Easy

En Español.

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.

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  1. marco

    Now they want to ban self checkout to create more jobs? While you’re at it, why don’t you ban computer price scanners so people can hand write the prices on the cans and then go through and re-do them each time there’s a price change. How about banning trucks and forklifts so more workers can move small boxes of product around by hand as that would create more jobs. C’mon folks! A business also has to stay efficient.

  2. Bob

    UK’s Tesco has already lost $250 million on its US operations. No tears for Tesco, but why doesn’t organized labor wait for the company to actually make a profit here before worrying about getting its claws into it?

  3. Max

    Unions are killing us… And the neighborhood needs this store.

  4. EO

    Interesting that the Human Rights Watch story linked to above mentions T-Mobile. I don’t remember anyone protesting their huge store on Mission Street. And no one seems to care when a new Walgreens or check-cashing place opens either. What it is about groceries that gets everyone so agitated?

  5. xid

    Without unions the workers are disposable. Big business’ anti-union attitude is all part of their plan to demean service and blue collar workers, and make them feel worthless. Meanwhile the CEOs of these chains are all gazillionaires.

  6. Oscar

    October 27, 2011 Former Meat Buyer Wins $400,000-Plus Legal Judgment From Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market

  7. wc1

    If the community doesn’t like it, they don’t have to shop there. Vote with your dollar.

    • Jim Salinas

      The whole idea is to go to the highest standard not the lowest standard. Fresh and Easy wants this location because it will make them monies. It will make them monies because the community needs one and deserves one. Grocery store clerks don’t earn that much, so it makes sense that we get the highest wages and the best possible benefits for these Mission district residents. We should look to raise the bar from what was accomplished in the Bayview Hunters point. We deserve as much. We have single moms in the Mission district working two and three jobs to make the rent let alone put food on the table. Its not like Fresh and Easy is bringing in two to three hundred jobs. At best its 25 jobs, at best. So lets get rid of the machines that put our neighbors out of work. If you have a good paying job and don’t care about your neighbors than I understand how that works but the rest of us care about our community, and its residents. I understand I got mine and everyone else can go to heck mentality. For those of you that learned nothing about the Costco fiasco please know that as soon as no one was looking they jettisoned the local hires and brought in their people. So yeah I don’t trust folks unless there is a contract. I will let the retail clerks Union deal with the organizing part of it. But right now we can effectively bring some real community benefits similar to the ones we got on the HomeDepot/Lowes. Wishing the Mission district all the very best, not the very worst. The Corporations will take care of themselves thats how their profits are so solid. They really don’t need your help to exploit the community they have the best political consultants and high priced attorneys to do that. Happy Holidays

  8. SimonSays

    Vote with your dollar. Amen.

  9. Aaron

    Am I alone in my suspicion that unionized grocery stores are more expensive? I mean why else is all the meat and produce at Safeway twice as expensive as any store on 24th St? The dry goods certainly aren’t often cheaper either. It seems the only thing cheaper at Safeway is booze.

  10. Mission Resident

    Can anyone confirm that Fresh and Easy does not accept coupons or EBT (Food Stamps), or WIC? If this is true it is reason enough to reject them establishing themselves in the Mission.

    Given their exclusive use of self service checkout, I will not be patronizing them. I won’t use them at Safeway or Lucky either.

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