The battle to unionize workers at grocery store chain El Super moved to East Los Angeles last week when hundreds of protesters descended on the El Super store on Cesar Chavez Avenue to demand better wages and benefits.
The Southern California United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) represents about 575 employees at seven of El Super’s 40 stores in California. Union employees have been working without a contract since Sept. 27, 2013 when their five-year collective bargaining agreement expired. On May 2, union workers voted to reject the company’s latest wage and benefit offer, calling it inadequate.
At last Thursday’s rally, allies from other union and community groups joined El Super employees at the eastside rally. UFCW officials called on the stores’ non-union workers to organize and join their demand for higher wages and benefits.
Sign waving protesters said they want El Super to respect workers’ “basic rights.”
UFCW Local 770 Vice-President Rigoberto Valdez Jr. told EGP the East LA store was selected to show “solidarity” with non-union workers. “There’s a lot of intimidation and harassment [going on] in non-union stores,” Valdez said. “We want it to stop.”
A majority of El Super’s stores are in low-income neighborhoods and cater to the large number of Latinos and immigrants in those areas. Workers, many who live in the same neighborhoods, said they are paid very little and can’t afford to take time off even when ill, since the company does not offer paid sick days.
Lea este artículo en Español: Sindicato Lleva Su Lucha Hasta ‘El Super’ del Este de Los Ángeles
Maria Cabildo, president of East LA Community Corp., said sick employees are forced to choose between earning money “to pay their rent and feed their kids” or taking time off without pay. She said workers who handle food should be able to stay home when they are sick.
According to an article in the Los Angeles Business Journal and documents obtained by EGP, “El Super employees filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board” in April in an attempt to decertify the union on grounds that union representatives “coerced and intimidated employees by threatening and insulting them both physically and verbally” before the contract ratification vote. El Super also claims workers filed the petition because they were unhappy UFCW refused to accept El Super’s contract offer, which included pay raises.
UFCW, however, said workers did not understand what they were filing and many have since asked the NLRB to drop the decertification petition, which Valdez claims was signed under pressure from management.
“Supervisors at El Super were running around telling employees that if they signed the petition, mediation would come to an end” and an agreement would be reached, he said. But the truth is the two groups were still far apart, he said.
Mexico-based Grupo Comercial Chedraui, the country’s third largest retailer, owns 81% of Bodega Latina Corp., which owns and operates El Super.
Flora Castaneda is an El Super cashier and said during the rally she can no longer stand her low wages and not having benefits. “Look at management, getting paid $40 an hour for doing nothing,” she said, pointing angrily from the back of flatbed truck at managers and supervisors watching the protest.
Castaneda told EGP she has worked for El Super for nearly 11 years and earns $12.62 an hour. She called El Super’s offer to increase wages $1.30 an hour over five years “ridiculous.”
“Minimum wage goes up $2 in two years and they are offering us a $1.30 raise, that’s a joke,” she told EGP. They act like we “should be grateful for what this multi-billion dollar company is giving us. I feel like management is kicking me [in the rear],” she said.
According to news reports, El Super’s US sales have increased 10.6% since 2012. In January 2013, Forbes estimated the personal wealth of Chedraui’s Chairman of the Board, Alfredo Chedraui Obeso, at over $1 billion.
“They can’t say ‘we are a small store, we cannot afford it,’” Maria Elena Durazo, secretary-treasurer of the LA County Federation of Labor AFL-CIO told EGP. “What they can’t afford is employees living in poverty,” she said.
Durazo said El Super’s wage offer was “too low, below the standard,” causing negotiations to break off. On May 2, union workers voted down El Super’s “last, best, and final” offer, which according to Valdez, only included “17 to 25 cents increases in wages per year, for five years, two days of sick leave and no paid holidays.”
According to the “Fact Sheet” emailed by El Super to EGP, “Management’s Best and Final Offer” includes: immediate hourly wage increases ranging from 26 to 80 cents for all employees; two paid sick days for employees with one year or more at El Super; one paid personal day for employees with three years or more; one additional personal day for employees working for five years or more and the flexibility to use personal days as sick days.
El Super can do better, said Guadalupe Amador, who has worked for 11 years in the bakery at the El Super in South L.A. She loves her job, but said she needs to work more hours to make ends meet.
“As a single mother of three, it would allow me to put more food on my table,” she said at the rally. Amador said raising workers’ hours will improve customer service, explaining she risks being reprimanded if she does not clock out in time so she can continue helping customers in line.
On May 28, El Super agreed to resume negotiations, which were set to begin Wednesday. Meanwhile, Valdez said his group will continue their protests to show management workers have the support of the community.
The union is seeking 40 hours a week for employees with seniority, a “real” wage increase, six paid sick days, and the freedom to unionize without intimidation from management.
El Super says it has been negotiating “in good faith with the UFCW,” and has put forth several proposals “addressing a variety of issues.”
“The union did not generate a wage proposal until the last day the parties met on March 28, 2014…after a federal mediator urged it to do so,” according to a company statement.