Bakers rise up: Working at Fiesta Mart in Houston is no party

HOUSTON — Bakery commissary workers at the Fiesta Mart grocery store on Wirt Road in Houston will vote June 30 on whether to join the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM) Local 130. Concurrently, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Locals 408 and 455 have started an organizing drive among the grocery workers at Fiesta Mart stores.

In a collaborative effort, UFCW staged a “blitz” of all Fiesta stores in Houston at 1 p.m. on June 21. The 30 participants included members of UFCW, SEIU, Unite Here, UAW, IBEW and other friends of labor. They all entered the Fiesta stores at the same time and distributed UFCW handbills to employees on the job. The point of the action was to make contact with grocery workers, and, more important, to distract the managers at Fiesta. The managers have been harassing, attempting to intimidate and humiliating the bakers leading up to the election.

Harris County AFL-CIO reports that Local 130 has filed unfair labor practice charges against Fiesta with the National Labor Relations Board. They allege that Fiesta has used cameras to conduct illegal surveillance of employees. The grocery chain has also implemented a gag rule and “no solicitation” rules for union materials and conversations. Workers have been interrogated by supervisors who have also threatened to fire those who sign union cards or vote for the union. Fiesta is also charged with threatening to shut down the plant if the union wins the election.

U.S. Rep. Gene Green (D-Houston), Texas state Reps. Dr. Alma Allen, Kevin Bailey, Jessica Ferrar, and Senfronia Thompson and Houston City Council member Sue Lovell have all written letters to Fiesta Mart CEO Louis Katopodis asking him to allow employees to choose a union free from intimidation and harassment.

Fifty people gathered June 24 at a Holiday Inn Express in Houston to express their solidarity with the bakers.

Rep. Green told the group, “People need to be paid a decent wage and given respect for the hard work they do. A union can make that happen.”

A Fiesta worker spoke to the crowd in Spanish with a translator. He noted that he has only received a 5 cent per hour raise after five years on the job. “Is it a wage increase or another humiliation?” he asked. “No respect at all.” He described the working conditions at the bakery commissary. Workers arrive at 5 a.m., he said. One day, while a number of female employees waited at the door, a mentally ill man came by waving a gun. He pointed it at them and pulled the trigger. Fortunately, the gun was not loaded. Everybody ran away. Later in the day, the speaker said, he went to management and complained that security was never present when they arrived for work. An hour later he was called into Human Resources and accused of stealing two bottles of water. His receipts proving he had paid for them were ignored. He was subsequently fired, but got his job back. “My main point is this always happens,” said the speaker. “There’s always retaliation.” The woman who had had the gun pointed at her stood up to validate his story.

Another bakery worker addressed the group in Spanish and his son translated. He noted he had been working for Fiesta for 21 years. He declared: “They use psychology and attack you on insignificant things. It got to the point where we’re not going to take it any more. We’re going to vote and we’re going to win! It’s the only line of defense.” His son, a biology student at the University of Houston, read up on unions. He sent an e-mail to BCTGM outlining his father’s complaints about the working conditions at Fiesta. This led to the organizing effort. The son stated, “Not all tyrants remain in power!”