Town hall meet pledges to back BevMo! workers

OAKLAND, Calif. – What would you do if you woke up one morning to learn the full-time job you had counted on for years, to support your family and provide health care was morphing into a part-time job with no benefits?

That was the question facing workers at alcoholic beverage superstore BevMo! over the summer, as the store announced it was cutting all full-time non-management workers to part-time, and would end health coverage early in 2011. At the same time, the company has also hired a number of new part-time workers.

The response of workers at BevMo! stores in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties, across the bay from San Francisco, has been to “Stand Up, Fight Back!” and organize.

At a town hall meeting Sept. 23 with union and community members and elected officials, workers shared their stories and spoke of the next steps to win back their fulltime jobs, health coverage and pensions, win a modest $1/hour raise and gain recognition for the union they are organizing with help from United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5 and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Catherine Cordero, at BevMo! more than eight years, described the shock she felt when she learned the cutbacks she first experienced in February would be permanent, wiping out any chance to refinance her mortgage. “When they started making the cuts it became hard for me to pay my mortgage,” she said. Now the home is in foreclosure and she has had to file for bankruptcy. But, she declared, “I’m still fighting for my home.”

Ten-year employee Mario Munoz said BevMo!’s cutbacks and California’s budget crisis have dealt his family a sharp blow. “My daughter is just starting college, and because of the state cuts, her financial aid is still pending,” he told the crowd. “So I have been trying to find ways to do creative financing to make up for the loss of hours. I work just as hard now as I did when I was hired, and I find it very difficult emotionally and physically,” he added. “It’s been a very hard time.”

The workers also told how BevMo! has held mandatory meetings with workers, trying to justify their actions and giving a negative view of unions, leaving their fellow employees “madder than ever.” Customers who know of the situation are often supportive, they said.

By the end of the evening a plan was emerging to support the workers in the next stages of their struggle. Audience members suggested ways to spread the word more widely, urged city council resolutions and called for sending community delegations to meet with management. The possibility of a boycott was raised, if other measures fail. A support committee was started and a resolution was passed calling for restoring all lost work hours and benefits, and convening a meeting with BevMo! CEO Alan Johnson.

“Hearing your stories about your lives and what you are struggling to do inspires me and everyone here,” Josie Camacho, acting head of the Alameda Labor Council, told the group. “On behalf of the Council, we will stand with you until you get your union!”

The gathering was held in a hall at Port of Oakland headquarters. In the same building is the Oakland BevMo! store. Port Commissioner Victor Uno told the gathering, “Something is terribly wrong when a port tenant treats its workers this way.”

Elected officials and local candidates, including Oakland City Councilmember Jean Quan, Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington and state Assemblyman Sandre Swanson – who chairs the Assembly’s Labor and Employment Committee – pledged their support and emphasized the importance of living wage requirements especially when businesses operate on government-owned land.

BevMo! workers and their supporters rallied and presented management with their demands at rallies in Oakland and San Francisco last month.

BevMo! which operates over 100 superstores, mostly in California, was acquired in 2007 by the private equity firm TowerBrook Capital Partners, and has expanded rapidly since then. The company says its 2009 sales topped $500 million.

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Photo: Marilyn Bechtel




Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes for the People's World from the San Francisco Bay Area. She has been a member of the paper's staff since 1986. She has also been active in the peace movement. Born in Iowa, Marilyn has also lived in Chicago and New York City, and originally made her living as a professional musician.