El Super employees want fair wages, sick leave and respect

The grocery store chain's profits are up; its head is a billionaire. But, workers say, those successes have come at their expense.

On Tuesday, Oct. 22, Flora Castaneda marched in Inglewood. She marched with hundreds of fellow El Super grocery store employees, supporters and clergy, at a labor rally in the parking lot of the El Super at West Century and Crenshaw boulevards.

And here's what the employees, whose contract expired in September, were lathered up about:

Their work schedules and total weekly hours are in constant flux, so tending to family matters and managing second jobs are more than a little challenging.

If they get sick, tough luck. There is no sick leave.

After 10 years as a checkout clerk, Castaneda's hourly pay is $12 and change. She says the most she's ever grossed in a year is a little more than $20,000.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with her was Julieta Ordenez, an employee from the Arleta store, who makes $9.50 an hour and can't feed her family without food handouts from her church.

Also there was Lydia Flores, who makes $12.62 after 10 years, and has a healthcare plan but avoids the doctor because she can't afford the co-pays and figures her autistic son needs their scant healthcare dollars more than she does.

"Most of all," Castaneda said after climbing onto a flatbed truck to address the crowd, "we are fighting to win the company's respect."

Those three women are actually among the luckier El Super employees, because they are among the 600 employees whose stores have union contracts. Of the chain's 45 stores in the Southwest, only seven are unionized. At the non-union stores, which employ another several thousand, full-time workers average about $15,000 a year, say officials with United Food & Commercial Workers Local 770.

When I first got the details on their meager compensation, I figured the company — Grupo Comercial Chedraui, based in Mexico — would counter with the argument that profit margins at the discount chain are thin. I walked through the Inglewood store and saw red seedless grapes for 49 cents a pound, ground beef for $3.29 a pound, and medium eggs for 99 cents a dozen.

But those bargains make El Super a popular choice for shoppers, and the company is doing so well that it acquired eight new stores in the United States in 2012. Revenues grew by 13.6% that year, according to the firm's annual report. In Mexico, sales were up 10.6% last year.

And in January this year, Forbes reported that the chain's head, Alfredo Chedraui Obeso, hit a milestone.

He became a billionaire.

"They're doing it on the backs of the workers," said Rigo Valdez, the union's vice president.

"There's absolutely no reason those jobs have to be low-wage jobs," said Roxana Tynan, executive director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy.

She noted that Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons are doing fine despite union contracts with higher wages and better benefits. And that means their employees can help stimulate the economy rather than be a drain on public services.

Tynan can't see any excuse for El Super to make it difficult for employees to plan time with their families or hold second jobs, and she described sick leave as a "basic and fundamental right," as well as a common-sense consideration for a grocery store chain.

"Do you really want someone who's ill laying out your vegetables in the grocery store?" Tynan asked.

The wages of El Super employees aren't the exception in the local workforce. In the post-aerospace, post-manufacturing economy, hundreds of thousands of working Southern Californians are at or below federal poverty standards.

Gary Toebben, head of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said high unemployment and a general job shortage keep people stuck for years in what once were considered entry-level positions. The only way out of this is to produce a better-educated workforce and build a more competitive economy, he said.

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