Tuesday, April 5, 2011

UFCW Union, Activists and Employees Hold Pro-Union Rallies at 25 Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market Stores in California

Tesco's Fresh & Easy and the UFCW Union

The United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, organized labor activists, supporters and employees of Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market yesterday held rallies at 25 Fresh & Easy stores in California, in a show of support for employee organizing at the 171-store Tesco-owned fresh food and grocery chain.

Yesterday was the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. The rallies at the 25 Fresh & Easy stores in California were part of a national day of action in which U.S. labor unions and supporters organized a variety of different events throughout the nation. Organized labor held the day of action on the 43rd anniversary of the death of Dr. King to draw attention to trade unionism in America, particularly in light of the recent battles over collective bargaining going on in Wisconsin and Ohio between those states Governors and unionized public employees.

The UFCW and its various union locals in California deployed hundreds of activists and supporters to the 25 Fresh & Easy markets - 24 stores in Southern California and one grocery market in Northern California - yesterday afternoon, holding rallies in front of each of the stores. The pro-union activists held signs, passed out informational leaflets to shoppers and rallied the troops with speeches given by union officials local elected officials and pro-union Fresh & Easy store workers

One of the Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market store workers who participated in a rally was Lisa Austin, an employee of the Fresh & Easy store at 1000 W. West Covina Parkway in West Covina, California, and one of the leaders of a company-wide group of employees organizing for union representation at the grocery chain. Austin (pictured above) spoke to a crowd outside the West Covina store yesterday about the employee group's efforts to seek union representation at Fresh & Easy. (Behind Lisa Austin is Connie Leyva, president of UFCW local 1428 in Southern California. Leyva also spoke at the store event.)

Another Fresh & Easy store worker, Carlos Juarez, who works at the Fresh & Easy grocery market in Los Angeles' Glassell Park/Eagle Rock neighborhood and is another leader of the pro-union employee group, said at the rally in front of the store where he works: "We stood together for a voice on the job, and Fresh & Easy said 'No', and judges in two states and the National Labor Relations Board (NRLB) have found that Fresh & Easy broke the law by illegally surveilling, threatening and interrogating workers like me who want to form a union."

What Juarez is referring to in the latter part of his statement above is a recent ruling by the NLRB's board on two labor relations cases filed against Tesco's Fresh & Easy last year by store employees and the UFCW. In the cases, Administrative Law Judges ruled in favor of the employees and the union and against Fresh & Easy on the majority of charges or findings brought against the grocery chain.

In the Spring Valley/San Diego store case (June 20, 2010 story linked above) the NLRB's board found on January 31, 2011 that Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market "violated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) by promulgating and maintaining rules prohibiting employees from talking about the union and discipline, but not other subjects, while working and by implicitly inviting employees to resign because of their protected concerted activities. The finding upheld the thrust of the decision made on June 3, 2010 by Administrative Law Judge William G. Kocol. You can view the board's January 31, 2011 decision here: (21‑CA‑38882, et al.; 356 NLRB No. 90).

Also on January 31 of this year the NLRB's board adopted the Administrative Law Judge's finding in the Las Vegas case (details in the March 4, 2010 story linked above) that the respondent (Fresh & Easy) "violated the NLRA by maintaining an over-broad no-distribution rule, interrogating employees and creating an impression of surveillance.

The NLRB's board also adopted the dismissal of allegations that two discharges violated the NLRA, finding that the respondent (Fresh & Easy) showed that the two employees would have been discharged for lawful reasons even if they had not engaged in protected activity. This was a ruling the judge made in favor of Fresh & Easy. The board upheld the finding.

The Board did not adopt the judge’s finding that the respondent cured its unlawful, company-wide no-distribution rule in September 2009, and therefore found that corporate-wide remedial notice-posting is necessary with respect to that violation. The judge ruled in favor of Fresh & Easy on this charge. However the NLRB's board overruled the judge in favor of the employee and the UFCW. You can view the board's January 31, 2011 decision here: (28-CA-22520, et al.; 356 NLRB No. 85).

The "voice on the job" that Juarez refers to in the first part of his statement has to do with a group of employees at the Eagle Rock/Glassell Park store who've been attempting so far without success to have a meeting with Fresh & Easy's senior human resources executive and/or CEO Tim Mason to discuss the employees' desire to be represented by the UFCW union, as we reported in a series of stories here in Fresh & Easy Buzz.

Tesco and Fresh & Easy's long-stated position is that if employees want to join the union they should call for an election as is stipulated by the National Labor Relations Act. None of the employees at any of the Fresh & Easy stores, in cooperation with the UFCW, has done so to date.

The Glassell Park employees, who at one time said they had a majority of store workers in favor of joining the union, recently said they have no current plans to call for an election at the store.

Juarez was joined by fellow Glassell Park Fresh & Easy store worker Michael Acuna, who's also a leader of the pro-union employee group, and Rabbi Jonathan Klein, who's with Southern California's Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice group. Rabbi Klein and Acuna also spoke at the rally outside the store. [The three men are pictured in the photograph above. Left-to-right: Rabbi Klein (in suit), Michael Acuna (in the Fresh & Easy shirt) and Carlos Juarez (far right, black shirt).

Explaining why he was attending the event, Rabbi Klein said: "We want Fresh & Easy to know we don’t care how big you are or how much money you have. In our state, in our country, in our community we respect the rights of workers to organize and we stand with Fresh & Easy workers who want a real voice on the job."

Yesterday's pro-union events at the 24 Fresh & Easy stores in Southern California and the Walnut Creek unit in the San Francisco Bay Area (see the list of the 25 stores at the end of this piece) is the largest single day of store-level activity the UFCW has organized at Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market since the first stores were opened in November 2007, based on our coverage of the chain, which began in late 2007.

Late last year we correctly said the UFCW would be intensifying its campaign targeting Fresh & Easy beginning in early 2011, after moderating it considerably in the last half of 2010.

The union has done just that, launching its "Fix Fresh & Easy" public relations and advertising campaign in the beginning of 2011 and expanding it over the last few months, as we've report on here, along with conducting other types of actions targeting Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, which is owned by United Kingdom-based Tesco, the third-largest food and grocery retailer in the world and the UK's market share leader, accounting for a whopping 30% of all food and grocery sales in the nation. Tesco's stores in the UK are unionized.

Additionally, yesterday's rallies at the 25 Fresh & Easy stores marks the beginning of more intense campaigning, organizing and events to come throughout the spring and into the summer, including in Northern California where the grocer has so far this year opened seven stores.

For example, as we reported on March 25 in this story - UFCW Union Local Sets Up Picket Line at Just-Opened Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market Store in Modesto, California - Northern California local UFCW 8-Golden State has set up an informational picket line at the Fresh & Easy market in Modesto, California which opened on March 23.

Further, another Northern California local, Local 5, is conducting random informational leafleting at a few of the five Northern California Fresh & Easy stores the grocer has opened thus far this year in the San Francisco Bay Area, such as the store in Pacifica. [See - March 9, 2011: Northern California Launch: Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market Opens Store in Pacifica Today.]

The increased activity by the UFCW and the group of pro-unionization Fresh & Easy store-level workers come at about the same time United Kingdom-based Tesco is preparing to report its fiscal year 2010/11 financials, including how much the global retailer lost in the fiscal year at its Fresh & Easy USA chain of 171 stores.

We say loss because Tesco has already said it estimates reporting a loss for Fresh & Easy in the $250-$259 million range for the fiscal year, roughly the same amount it lost in the previously 2009/10 fiscal year, despite having a considerable increase in sales, mostly from new stores opened, for the 2010/11 year, which ended in February.

Tesco has a new CEO, former head of European /Asia operations and information technology chief Philip Clarke, who replaced Terry Leahy, who retired last month. Fresh & Easy's CEO Tim Mason, who was also named Tesco group deputy CEO to Clarke in March, is under the gun to get the money-losing U.S. chain to break-even by the end of Tesco's 2012/13 fiscal year, which is about two years away. Based on Fresh & Easy's current performance and strategy, doing so is going to be a tough slog for Clarke, Mason and company.

The increased efforts by the union to organize store-level workers at Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market won't make achieving that goal any easier for Tesco, although the El Segundo, California-based grocer's problems go far beyond a union organizing effort by a group of employees and the UFCW.

The UFCW rally outside the Fresh & Easy store at 1631 Highland Avenue in San Bernardino, California drew a large crowd of activits and supporters for union organizing at Tesco's Fresh & Easy.

The union issue is compounded by the fact that the current contract between the UFCW locals in Southern California and the regions unionized grocery chains, which include the four market share-leading grocer's in Southern California - Kroger's Ralphs, Safeway's Vons, Albertsons and Stater Bros - has expired.

The chains and their respective unionized workers are working on a day-to-day basis under the old contract. Either party has the right to terminate the day-to-day arrangement by giving the other party 72-hours notice.

As of today, no progress has been made in negotiations between the UFCW and Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons, which is owned by Supervalu, Inc. Stater Bros. is negotiating with the union separately, as is local chain Gelsons.

In fact, the three chains only submitted their first proposal to the UFCW on March 29. The Southern California union locals have essentially pronounced the proposal, which includes various "givebacks" involving premium-type (holidays, Sundays, ect.) wages and benefits, dead on arrival. Already some of the unions are telling employees that a strike vote may have to be made if progress isn't made in the next couple weeks, for example.

The UFCW is under pressure as part of the contract talks because the unionized chains say they are losing market share to non-union chains like Walmart, Target, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods Market, Sprouts Farmers Market and Fresh & Easy, which is true. As a result, expect to see intensified organizing by the UFCW not only vis-a-vis Tesco's Fresh & Easy but also involving a couple of the other chains noted above.

One of the more aggressive UFCW union local presidents in Southern California is Connie Leyva (pictured above in front of the West Covina Fresh & Easy store and behind store employee Lisa Austin in the earlier photo), who's also the president of the California Labor Federation, the highly politically connected umbrella organization for organized labor in the Golden State.

Governor Jerry Brown is counting on the Federation's support for his budget balancing plan and on other issues, for example.

Additionally, organized labor is also a crucial supporter of Democrats in California, which hold a majority in both the State Assembly and State Senate. Assembly Speaker John Perez is a former official with the UFCW union.

Leyva attended the rally at the West Covina store yesterday and had strong words for Tesco and Fresh & Easy's senior management, saying: "When Dr. King passed away, he was standing up for striking workers in Memphis. We honor his memory today by standing with organizing workers at Fresh & Easy and saying our communities support and honor the right to organize."

For the UFCW union and the pro-union Fresh & Easy store employees however, the bottom line is that until they can hold an win an election at one of the grocer's 171 stores, the probability of becoming unionized is as close to zero as can be had. Tesco has no interest in talking with the UFCW about becoming a union shop, evidenced not only by our source information but by the fact the union has been asking its and Fresh & Easy's senior executives to do so for four years.

We don't see such an election happening at any Fresh & Easy store this year. Therefore the employees' and union's thrust will continue to be through public relations, advertising, picketing and events like the action held yesterday at the 25 stores in California. In other words, don't look for a resolution to the Fresh & Easy-union issue anytime soon.

Union activists and supporters rally outside of the Fresh & Easy store in Spring Valley/San Diego yesterday.

Below are the locations of the 25 Fresh & Easy stores where the rallies took place yesterday:

Alhambra - 2121 W. Main St.
Buena Park - 7880 Valley View St.
Burbank - 1615 W. Verdugo Ave.
Compton - 2175 W. Rosecrans Ave.
Glassell Park/Eagle Rock - 4211 Eagle Rock Blvd.
Fullerton - 1207 S Euclid
Harbor City - 26640 Western Ave, Suite E
Hollywood - 7021 Hollywood Blvd.
Lakewood - 4930 Paramount Blvd.
Lakewood - 5615 Woodruff Ave.
Manhattan Beach - 1700 Rosecrans Ave.
Northridge - 19350 Nordoff St.
Orange - 1803 E Chapman
Paramount - 15727 Downey Ave.
Pico Rivera - 8921 Washington Blvd.
Rancho Cucamonga - 8956 Foothill Blvd.
Rancho Cucamonga - 12188 Foothill Blvd.
Rancho Cucamonga - 829 W Foothill, Upland
Rialto - 2015 N Riverside Ave
San Bernardino - 1631 E Highland Ave
Spring Valley/San Diego - 96655 Campo Rd.
Van Nuys - 15230 Vanowen St.
Vista - 945 E Vista Pkwy
Walnut Creek - 1821 Ygnacio Valley Rd.
West Covina - 1000 W. West Covina Pkwy

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[Readers: See our extensive coverage and analysis of the union issue at Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market at (click on) the following links: , , , , , , .]

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