OAKLAND, Calif. — When a business has a growth spurt and expands its workforce tenfold, one might think the owners would appreciate the workers’ role in their success. But last summer, as the organic grocery Farmer Joe’s Marketplace opened a second outlet in a former Albertson’s supermarket, a very different picture emerged.
In a recent conversation, nine members of a workers’ committee that’s been organizing since last August to unionize the now 100-plus workforce told of their struggle to overcome a concerted anti-union drive by owners Joe and Diana Tam. Because the campaign is continuing, the workers asked not to be identified.
In December, just as a majority of the workers were ready to join the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the owners hired an anti-union consultant and started firing union supporters, committee members said.
Before the new store opened, said one, workers regularly put in 10-hour shifts, five days a week, with no overtime pay. Their wages average $9 an hour, and they have no benefits beyond a modest vacation allowance which must also cover sick days.
Promised a wage hike when the new store opened, workers did get a small increase, but at the same time, their hours were cut. “We were also promised benefits,” the worker said, “but we weren’t told what they were. The union-busting outfit told us we have benefits and don’t need a union.”
Another committee member said management circulated an anti-union petition among the workers. “The owners gave a petition to everyone, and said, ‘you’re either with the union or you’re with us.’ Some people signed it because they were afraid they would lose their jobs.”
A third worker added, “Now the managers look for any mistakes. They spy all day. There is a lot of favoritism. We never even take breaks any more. We give them time and work, but they don’t give us any respect. How can they claim to respect us if they never ask what we want?”
In an ironic twist, co-owner Joe Tam was a UFCW member for 19 years, and the union-busting firm the Tams hired is run by two former members of other unions.
Though the Tams contend they are willing to have workers go through the National Labor Relations Board’s election process, the workers say it would be fairer to decide the matter by card-check, a procedure the union is demanding.
“We don’t want to go through those meetings with the owners and the union-busters,” said an organizing committee member. “We would have a much better chance for a fair decision if we had the Employee Free Choice Act.” The EFCA, which has passed the House of Representatives and is now before the Senate, would let workers unionize when a majority have signed cards to do so.
The workers’ struggle at Farmer Joe’s highlights the need to organize workers in the rapidly growing organic grocery market, said UFCW Local 5 Communications Director Mike Henneberry. “What used to be a niche market is now the market,” he said, adding that most of the rapidly spreading outlets for organic foods, including major chains such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, are nonunion.
Union and community members are now picketing five afternoons a week to support the organizing drive, Henneberry said. He added that backing “is great” among neighborhood residents, many of whom are union members.
A boycott of the store, called by the union and community supporters, is supported by the California Labor Federation. In a recent week, organizers said, some 167 people decided not to shop at the store when told by the pickets about the labor conflict.