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Labor & Worker Rights Mon Mar 22 2010
When Raul Real decided he and his co-workers needed a union, he knew his bosses wouldn't be happy. He didn't realize, however, that his organizing would eventually cost him his job and lead to his arrest at his former place of employment.
Real is one of a number of former workers at the Chicagloand grocer Pete's Fresh Market who are levying charges against the company including firings for union activity, threats based on immigration status, and gender and pregnancy discrimination. Company officials say they have engaged in no wrongdoing, and that the majority of workers have no desire to be represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881.
But workers who claim the company abused them have begun to speak out, pressuring the company to recognize the union. Real claims his organizing first led to his firing, and that his participation in a recent protest at a southwest side Pete's resulted in his arrest.
In 40 years, Pete's Fresh Market has grown from a small produce stand on the South Side to an eight store empire that is rapidly expanding. Founded in 1970 by James Dremonas, a Greek immigrant who still runs the company, Pete's prides itself on remaining a family-owned business that offers low-price, high-quality food in underserved communities. In August, 2009, residents of East Garfield Park saw the approved construction of a Pete's as a victory for the community; the Chicago Tribune declared the store's future opening "the end of a fight, the end of a drought, the beginning of a new age in one of Chicago's official 'food deserts.'"
But the victory for some Chicagoans in increased access to quality food has occurred while Pete's workers have come forward with claims of abuse on the job. Three months after the approval of the East Garfield Park Pete's, Raul Real says he was fired for union activity.
Pro-union workers' and organizers' claims clash sharply with the company's. Workers claim discrimination based on nationality and gender led to their decision to organize. After beginning an organizing drive, centered at the Pulaski location with 110 workers, they say the company then pulled out all the stops to keep Pete's union-free, and that managers threatened company bankruptcy and store closure if they organized and fired the drive's leaders. Several charges are currently pending against Pete's, including one case with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Pete's representatives declined to comment until the lawsuits are settled. The company's lawyers dismisses claims of discrimination and say the majority of workers don't even want a union at Pete's.
Workers began meeting with UFCW organizers in August, 2008. After multiple alleged cases of discrimination against pregnant women and Mexican immigrants, sexual harassment, and few raises and benefits, they felt they had to form a union to protect themselves. Organizers say wages are low -- near minimum wage -- and benefits nonexistent.
Enrique Ortega, a cart pusher at the Pete's on Pulaski for seven years, said he and his Mexican co-workers would be blamed when items would come up missing in the store.
"They said things to us like, 'You guys are Mexicans -- you're all thieves,'" Ortega claimed, adding that he still makes almost minimum wage after seven years of work.
Sitting at a table in a Mexican restaurant on Pulaski Avenue several blocks north of Ortega's employer, barely audible over a blaring mix of duranguense and Top 40 music, three co-workers nodded in agreement. Jeanette Gonzaga, a cashier at the Pulaski Pete's, recalled being cursed at in Spanish by managers.
Ortega also says he had overtime hours shaved from his paycheck -- a claim echoed by Real.
"They'd say they forgot to include your overtime hours on a paycheck," Real said, "then it would show up on the next one but with several hours missing."
Iain Johnston, a lawyer for the company, dismisses both claims, saying the former is improbable and the latter impossible.
"I would find it odd that Pete's would discriminate against people of Hispanic origin," Johnston said. "They have a very substantial population of Hispanic employees."
"I'm not sure how [shaving hours] could physically be possible, given the highly sophisticated punch-in technologies Pete's uses." Johnston added that he has randomly reviewed payroll records himself to ensure compliance with labor laws on overtime.
Real, a 25-year-old who worked in the meat market at the company's Little Village location on Cermak, does not dispute the functionality of these sophisticated technologies the day he was fired. He does, however, think they were used unfairly to wear him out and then terminate him. As it became clear that he was a union leader, managers began making life difficult for him.
"They changed my schedule daily," he said. "They'd have me working until 10pm one day, then starting at 5am the next. Then they'd do it again. It was exhausting."
The erratic hours quickly wore on him, and one day in November Real punched in at 5:09am. "It was the first time I was late, and they fired me," he said.
Ana Rodriquez had worked at the deli Pete's at 58th and Pulaski for two years when a manager told her she would be fired. The company did not offer maternity leave, and the growing size of her stomach made work difficult. Her right hand gingerly placed on her daughter of four months, she recounted what the manager said to her.
"'You can't work -- you're pregnant,'" she stated. "'You're so fat, you're not useful.'"
Rodriguez was eventually reinstated, but organizers claim at least 10 women have been fired in the last year after becoming pregnant.
Union and company officials would not comment on the EEOC case, but Moises Zavala, organizing director for UFCW Local 881, insists the charges are quite serious. "No worker would file charges for the heck of it," said Zavala. "They filed the charges because the situation is extremely horrible, and the work environment is depressing."
Iain Johnston did not know the details of Real's case and would not comment on the gender discrimination issues (the crux of the EEOC lawsuit), but argues that he has yet to even meet an employee who wants the union.
"If they choose to obtain a union, that's a right, and we're not going to interfere with it," Johnston said. "But I haven't been approached by any employees who say they want a union. I talk to the employees pretty often, and none have told me of concerns or problems they're having."
Workers and supporters gathered to air a number of those untold concerns on an unusually pleasant Saturday morning last week in front of a southwest side Pete's on Pulaski Avenue. A towering vampire made of paper mache and held aloft by crutches -- a stand-in for the company's greed, one supporter explained straight-faced -- observed local politicians, students, and community and union members give speeches in Spanish and English. Rick Muñoz, alderman for the 22nd ward, declared the Pete's fight a struggle for "respect for working class families." Attendees in the back struggled to hear him say that such families are the foundation of the American economy as semi-trucks honked and a young girl beat a five-gallon bucket with a piece of wood.
After the final speaker, activists briefly marched through the store's parking lot. A lone CPD officer attempted to halt the vampire's advancement past a cart corral, but the giant blood-sucking piñata gave no pause.
The mini-march completed, a group of muscular men filed out of the store and glowered at the dissipating rally. As an attendee attempted to enter her car in the parking lot, the officer who failed to halt Dracula threatened to arrest her, and a large man in sunglasses told said he would have her car towed.
As Real waited for a friend -- who was, ironically, shopping inside the store -- he says a manager recognized him and called out to him. Demanding that he leave the premises, Real refused to go without his friend. He and two others -- including the shopper -- were arrested for trespassing. Real acknowledges he broke the law, but argues that the arrests were retaliatory.
"They were mad we had the march, so they had us arrested."
The dispute has no clear end in sight. Multiple lawsuits are pending against Pete's, and Real awaits trial for his trespassing charge as he tries to find another job. Workers say organizing efforts remain difficult, but worthwhile. They will continue protests in front of Pete's stores and keep the pressure on the company. According to Zavala, over 50 percent of workers have signed authorization cards; through community pressure, the union aims to force the company's hand in recognizing them.
"These are workers who, through their sweat, have allowed Pete's to build their business and expand their stores. We believe it is now time for the workers to receive what is owed to them," he stated.
Despite his firing, Real has no regrets about his organizing, arguing for its importance in his co-workers' lives.
"People just want to work. They just want to send their kids to school and pay their bills," he explained. "They don't want much.
"If we can lose our fear and demand our rights," he concluded, "we'll win sooner or later."
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.