Hanson made the request in a letter last Friday to Prince Andrew, who was in the U.S. for the grand opening of the new Fresh & Easy grocery market in Compton, California, as well as visiting on other trade issues.
In the letter, Hanson wrote: "It has been reported that Tesco's first three months of business in the U.S. has been very slow. In fact, retail analysts speculate that Fresh & Easy is not meeting sales expectations. We [the union] have a great deal of experience working with employers and helping them better serve their employees, the community and their customers. We would like the opportunity to discuss this with Tesco. To date, they have refused to meet with us. The letter was signed by Hanson and distrubuted to the press, which is how we obtained it.
The "to date" Hanson is referring to in terms of Tesco Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market executives "refusing to meet with us [the union]," is regarding efforts by the UFCW in California and Arizona to sit down and discuss labor relations with the retailer.
Fresh & Easy is non-union. In contrast, nearly all of the major supermarket chains and independents in California, Arizona and most of Nevada where Fresh & Easy currently has stores, are union shops.
There are exceptions besides Fresh & Easy however. Those other non-union exceptions of note include Whole Foods Market, Wal-Mart Supercenters and Trader Joe's. Safeway Stores, the market share leader in the region, number two Ralph's, which is owned by Kroger Co., SuperValu, Inc.'s Albertsons (number three leader) and most others are union members though.
The UFCW has been attempting to organize Fresh & Easy's store-level workers by giving them comparative information on how much they make in wages vs. the union chain's employees, and the qualitative differences in union health benefits, retirement programs and the like, compared to what they currently are getting at Fresh & Easy.
For example, A union retail supermarket clerk with one-year's full-time experience in California makes about $21 an hour. Additionally, they get paid triple-time per-hour for any holiday they work and double time if they work on a Sunday. They also get about 50-cents extra per hour for any late-night hours they work after 7pm.
Supermarket union health benefits are some of the best in the nation--not just in the supermarket industry but across the board. Employee contribution's and co-payments are minimal. They also get dental, vision and mental health benefits for a fraction of the cost that workers in most industries pay.
Entry-level union shop workers start out at between $10.00 (lowest-end) and $15.00 hour depending on a number of variables. They get raises every few months until they reach one-year's worth of total hours. For those hired full-time that takes about a year. For part-timers it could take two-years or slightly longer. Part-time workers also are in the health plan as long as they work at least 20 hours a week.
The retail supermarket clerks union also has a generous pension program. A full-time worker with 25 years experience at retirement can recieve about $3,500 month in pension payments for the rest of his or her life, in addition to collecting Social Security. Most big chains like Safeway and Kroger's Ralph's also offer workers profit-sharing and discount stock-buying retirement programs, along with the union pension benefit. Union employees pay a small portion out of each paycheck towards their eventual retirement benefits. The rest is contributed by the supermarket chain.
Fresh & Easy employees primarily are part-time workers at store-level, except for store management. Out of a store with 20 employees, for example, 15 -to-16 are part-timers generally. Starting wages are $10.00 hour. We have asked in the past, but Fresh & Easy hasn't told us if they have a program of graded raises similar to the union's program.
Fresh & Easy has a health insurance plan for workers, including part timers. Part-time employees must work at least 20 hours a week to qualify for the plan. The health plan however is frankly nowhere near the quality of the UFCW plan. Nor is it as cost-effective for an employee. The employee contributions are higher, as are the co-payments for office visits and prescription drugs. The level of dental, vision and mental health benefits aren't there like in the union plan either.
Additionally, we aren't aware of a pension plan at Fresh & Easy for its part-time workers, which make-up the vast majority of its employees.
Federal labor law in the U.S. requires that employers allow unions to organize workers within certain restrictions. Further, workers can circulate a petition at the workplace, and if it gets enough signatures, hold a vote among themselves as to whether or not they want to join the union. Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market does not dispute that at all. In fact, a spokesperson told us in December, 2007 that it is the employees right if they want to form a union, and that the company would not stand in their way to do so and follows and respects the federal abor laws.
We tried to get confirmation from someone at Fresh & Easy regarding whether or not Prince Andrew delivered the letter to CEO Tim Mason or another senior executive. We haven't heard back as of yet. We must assume though that the Prince would deliver the letter, both as a matter of duty and in his official capacity as the country's foreign trade representative.
The union issue isn't going away anytime soon. In terms of the supermarket industry, California--where Fresh & Easy is locating the majority of its grocery markets--is perhaps the strongest grocery union state in the U.S. California UFCW officials tell us they are planning a major campaign to organize Fresh & Easy workers in the next couple months. Union representatives already are appearing at store grand openings, handing out information to workers and customers. We will keep our readers posted on this development regularly.