A supermarket opening at Pedro Point Shopping Center next month gives Coastsiders a fresh choice for grocery shopping, but a national union advises caution.
The Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market is scheduled to open March 9, offering wholesome and fresh food at affordable prices, but recent conflict with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) raises questions about whether the 20 to 25 Pacifica employees will have trouble joining their peers from Safeway and Lucky in unionizing.
The 10,000 sq. ft. store is on the site of the former Pacifica Athletic Center. Owned by U.K.-based supermarket giant Tesco, Fresh & Easy is making a debut in Northern California after launching stores in the Los Angeles area, Nevada and Arizona beginning in 2006. Pacifica’s is among 13 Fresh & Easy markets slated to open in the Bay Area this year.
“Fresh-prepared meals are our most popular products, like you make at home,” Fresh & Easy spokesman Brendan Wonnacott said, adding that much of the store’s products contain no artificial flavors or colors.
The Pacifica store has been in development for several years, and the company has already improved the Pedro Point Shopping Center significantly, Mayor Mary Ann Nihart said.
“I am thrilled to have a business in town that is the size and caliber of Fresh and Easy,” Nihart said. “The whole shopping center has changed; every aspect is improved. The place is filled.”
Wonnacott said it’s too early to predict the overall economic impact the supermarket will have on Pacifica.
“What we’ve seen for all our stores is that they have served as a catalyst for growth,” he said. “Some of the strip centers had been completely vacant.”
Hiring for the store is under way. Entry-level positions start at $10 an hour with opportunities for health coverage, quarterly bonuses and a 401(k) plan with company match.
The new jobs could make Fresh & Easy among the top employers in Pacifica, based on the city’s 2008–09 comprehensive annual fiscal report.
Tesco’s expansion to the West Coast has not gone off without a hitch, however. Thirteen of the more than 150 Fresh and Easy markets closed in November, after Tesco reported U.S. losses of $151 million.
Employees’ unionization attempts have been stifled, as well. Last year, two administrative law judges, in separate cases, determined that Fresh & Easy had violated the National Labor Relations Act. Tesco has appealed the rulings. Fresh & Easy is also included in an in-depth Human Rights Watch report on European corporations that have violated international law guaranteeing employees’ right to freedom of association.
“In Europe, Tesco is known for cooperating with unions and a unionized workforce,” said Evan Yeats, a UFCW spokesman based in Washington, D.C. “In the U.S., there is a clear effort [by the company] to do things differently.”
In 2007, during their respective presidential campaigns, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton each sent a letter to Tesco executives after UFCW and community organizations were rebuffed in attempts to meet urging the company to allow unionization of its U.S. workers.
In Pacifica, UFCW represents around 350 workers at Safeway and Lucky.
The union has also waged a public awareness and action campaign, Fix Fresh & Easy.
In the Human Rights Watch report, a Tesco executive responded to claims that it had aimed for a non-union American workforce:
“We had hoped to have good relations with unions in the U.S.,” Lucy Neville-Rolfe wrote in a letter to Human Rights Watch. “However, it is difficult to develop relations with an organization which has appeared to try to damage our business from day one and has misrepresented the truth about the way Fresh and Easy treats its staff.”
Wonnacott said the company stands by its longstanding commitment to making Fresh and Easy a great place to work, and it supports efforts by employees to unionize. Unfair labor practice (ULP) rulings are commonplace in both union and nonunion businesses, he said, noting more than 2,000 have occurred in the past two years nationwide.
“The ULP is used as a tactic by unions to persuade employees to join them,” Wonnacott said.
As part of Fresh & Easy’s rollout in the Bay Area, the company will where it establishes a new store. Customers can nominate nonprofits of their choice, and store employees will select the winning charity.
Fresh & Easy also makes efforts to reduce its environmental footprint by using 30 percent less energy than a typical supermarket, less lighting and advanced refrigeration and freezer units.
Last month, Wonnacott gave a presentation to the Pedro Point Community Association (PPCA) about the new store.
“What we’re excited about is that we’ll have a true walking neighborhood for our needs, without having to get in the car,” association member Sam Casillas said. “They’ll be doing some outreach to get other stores to move in, and that’s rather nice as well.”
Casillas said the group’s main concern about Fresh & Easy involves it attracting additional litter in the area. In response, the store plans to look into placing additional garbage cans nearby.
Another possible area of concern for PPCA is that Fresh & Easy will ship all of its products from Riverside, CA, at least until the company has enough momentum in Northern California to open a closer distribution center.
“(We should) buy local as much as it makes sense ,” Casillas said.
Casillas said that the PPCA tends to avoid taking stances on political issues such as unionization, “but as individuals, it would be interesting to find out if workers are getting better deals elsewhere.”
Yeats said Fresh and Easy has strong potential for success if it were to welcome organized labor and more community input.
“Shouldn’t we work together to make things better?” he said.
While Mayor Nihart is not familiar with the issues surrounding UFCW and Fresh & Easy, she is confident that organized labor in San Mateo County is open and fair in working with employers.
Most of all, she looks forward to the opportunity for Pacificans to shop at an affordable specialty supermarket without needing to travel to Trader Joe’s in Daly City.
Fresh & Easy operates all registers as self-checkout but customers may request to have an employee check and bag all items. The store does not accept WIC vouchers. Hours will be 8am–10pm.