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LA labor coalition joins the fight against El Super grocery chain

Picketers with United Food and Commercial Workers ask customers at the Highland Park location to join a boycott of El Super stores.
Picketers with United Food and Commercial Workers ask customers at the Highland Park location to join a boycott of El Super stores.
Josie Huang/KPCC

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A Los Angeles-area coalition of some 300 unions is calling on members to stop shopping at El Super, one of California’s biggest ethnic grocery chains.

The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor on Thursday threw its support behind a boycott of the Mexican-owned company, which is in a contract fight with some of its workers. 

The discount grocery chain has more than 40 locations in Southern California, many in Latino, working-class neighborhoods — some of the very same places where the federation’s 600,000 members live and shop, according to its leader Rusty Hicks.   

"We can have quite a substantial impact," Hicks said, noting family, friends and supporters of union members would also be recruited.

Union boycotts of groceries are nothing new. One of the nation's largest was the 2003-2004 supermarket strike affecting more than 800 Albertsons, Ralphs and Vons stores in California. That was a much larger effort that spanned nearly five months, and involved nearly 60,000 workers.

The chains lost more than $2 billion in sales, but in the end, workers had to concede to many of the cost-cutting measures the companies demanded to compete with Walmart.

As in the El Super boycott, labor is increasingly turning its attention to ethnic grocery chains, which are expanding in California to cater to growing Hispanic and Asian communities. Union leaders acknowledge that El Super is a much smaller operation than stores like Ralphs and Vons, but they say it still has the resources to raise wages and offer more affordable health benefits.

"El Super is not a mom 'n' pop," said Rigo Valdez of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which represents El Super's 600 unionized workers at seven El Super stores.

El Super did not offer comment on the federation's involvement in the boycott, but management has said it has negotiated "in good faith." In a fact sheet provided to KPCC, the chain said it offered, among other things, wage increases ranging from 26 to 80 cents per hour for all employees and four weekends off for employees working at El Super for at least two years.  

Salvador Delgado

UCFW launched its boycott of El Super in December and has been asking shoppers to join the effort, but it may be a challenge to rally support. At the Highland Park store earlier this week, customers continued to make their way into the store despite a small line of picketers with UFCW urging them otherwise.

Construction worker Omar Morales said he's sympathetic to El Super workers but has to think about his budget.

"I have to fend for myself and my family and I’ve got to shop where the price is right," Morales said.

Brandishing a sign that read "Boycott El Super," UFCW volunteer Salvador Delgado said out of about 400 El Super customers he approached, he convinced under 40 to shop at the nearby Food 4 Less. For him, that was a victory.

"They said they wanted to help us out for the cause," Delgado said. "It adds up and makes a difference."

The contract for El Super workers expired in Sept. 2013, and the company said it made its "best and final offer" in April 2014.

In the time since, the UFCW has alleged that along with its failure to adequately compensate workers, El Super has not done right by shoppers when it comes to cleanliness and selling fresh products.

The L.A. County public health department said it's received 52 complaints about health code violations over the last year at El Super locations in its jurisdiction. The results of the investigations were not immediately available.

Previous inspection reports for Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Orange County El Super locations gave the grocery operation mostly high marks.