OAKLAND, Calif. - Some 30,000 California workers, many of them in the San Francisco Bay Area, are employed by mercados - Latino, Asian and other ethnic grocery stores numbering many recent immigrants among both workers and customers.
Many mercado workers experience significant difficulties on the job: unfair hiring practices, poverty wages, wage theft, verbal and psychological abuse, lack of proper meal and rest breaks.
The campaign takes a comprehensive approach to union organizing including issues such as housing, immigrant rights, civil rights and health care. A campaign goal: to get mercado owners to sign a code of conduct calling for observance of basic labor laws, timely and full payment of wages, two days of paid sick leave and five paid vacation days per year, recognition of workers' right to organize, and compliance with state and federal non-discrimination laws.
Supporters gathered March 13 at Mi Pueblo's store in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood, home to a large Latino community. The chain, which currently has 19 stores in the Bay Area and northern California, recently fired some 300 workers, alleging they were no longer needed because business is down. At the same time, campaign participants say, Mi Pueblo is planning to open other stores, some as far away as Sacramento.
Dozens of protesters slipped quietly into the store by twos and threes, gathering at the back of the store as rabbis gave a blessing. Members of the Progressive Jewish Alliance joined with union and community members to present the store manager with their demands that the chain rehire the affected workers and sign the Code of Conduct.
Their efforts rejected, demonstrators gathered outside to alert the surrounding community to the situation, and to pledge an ongoing struggle.
In a telephone interview, UFCW Local 5 organizer Gerardo Dominguez noted that the organizing campaign has met with some success. Drivers servicing Mi Pueblo stores recently voted to be represented by Teamsters Local 853. "Now we are working to organize the rest of the company," he said.
Dominguez said the participation of faith-based organizations and clergy from the Roman Catholic Church, the Jewish community and several Protestant denominations is giving the campaign new impetus, and is helping to expose the employers' frequent claim that it's "the big union against the mom-and-pop business. With the religious community joining with us, they cannot have that excuse and now they have to face the reality."
Among problems at Mi Pueblo, Dominguez said, are speedup and a resulting high accident rate, discrimination against women workers, and a failure to hire Black workers. In addition, he said, expired foods have been found on the stores' shelves.
Meanwhile, over 50 former workers at another Bay Area mercado, this time in the South Bay, are suing their former employer, the Su Vianda chain, seeking to recover over $200,000 in unpaid wages and penalties.
The workers say they were denied rest periods, overtime pay and meal breaks, while the chain took money from their checks for health insurance but never provided it, and didn't pay them their final earned wages.
They are calling for a jury trial.
Photo: (Marilyn Bechtel/PW)