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mercado workers protest sexual harassment and firings

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  • David Bacon
    MERCADO WORKERS PROTEST SEXUAL HARASSMENT AND FIRINGS By David Bacon, TruthOut Report, Monday, 25 February 2013
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 25, 2013
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      By David Bacon, TruthOut Report, Monday, 25 February 2013

      Valentine's Day sometimes brings
      chocolates and sometimes flowers. But
      Valentine's Day in Oakland, California, brought
      angry women out to the Mi Pueblo supermarket in
      the heart of the barrio. There they tried to
      speak to the chain's owner, Juvenal Chavez, not
      about love, but about the sexual harassment of
      women who work there.
      As they gathered next to the parking lot
      holding pink placards, Latino families in pickup
      trucks and beat up cars honked and waved. Laura
      Robledo then stepped up to an impromptu podium
      and told her story. As she spoke, her teenage
      daughter held her protectively around the waist,
      and stared angrily at the doorway where managers
      stood waiting for trouble.
      Robledo used to work at the Mi Pueblo
      market in San Jose. She lost her job when she
      complained to the company that she'd been
      sexually harassed by a coworker. "I had two
      witnesses who heard everything he said," she
      recalled angrily. "The words were so low and
      degrading it was horrible just to hear them. He
      even tried by force to kiss and embrace me."
      So she complained to the company. That
      was unusual, because workers at the markets
      complain about intimidation by managers, and that
      those who complain lose their jobs.
      Fear at Mi Pueblo has been high since
      last August, when the company announced it was
      using the E-Verify database to check employees'
      immigration status. Then in October company
      lawyer Julie Pace said the Immigration and
      Customs Enforcement agency was auditing Mi
      Pueblo's personnel records. Almost all the
      chain's workers are immigrants.
      In each store employees were herded into
      meetings, where they were shown a video in which
      Juvenal Chavez told them that if their
      immigration status was questioned they would be
      fired. "The possibility of losing one of our
      employees will hurt my heart," he assured them.
      "And it will feel like losing a family member."
      When Robledo went to the company to
      report the harassment, however, she says it
      didn't feel at all like a family. "They said
      they'd investigate it," she recounted. "But they
      did nothing. After two weeks they gave me a
      letter saying they'd finished their investigation
      and that nothing had happened and that workers
      were always treated with respect. For me this
      was terrible. I felt very humiliated because I
      could see they didn't respect my rights as a
      Robledo was a new employee, having only
      started working at the store that October. The
      harassment began almost immediately, she says.
      Despite getting the letter claiming she had no
      basis for her charges, she continued working.
      Robledo is a single mother of three children, and
      couldn't afford to quit.
      The company then made that decision for
      her. "I worked a couple of weeks after getting
      the letter," she recalls. "Then they accused me
      of getting into an argument with another worker,
      which wasn't true. It was just a pretext. They
      fired me because I kept complaining about sexual
      harassment. They knew that because I know my
      rights and I'm willing to defend myself that
      eventually I'd expose the truth."
      Perla Rodriguez, a spokesperson for Mi
      Pueblo, would not comment on Robledo's case "for
      legal reasons," but she said that workers
      participate in mandatory courses in preventing
      sexual harassment. "We have all the policies and
      procedures in place that afford all our team
      members the opportunity to report any incident or
      concern so that our human resources department
      can investigate and take any corrective action
      that is necessary."
      As the Valentines Day crowd grew, with
      her daughter beside her Robledo led a group of a
      hundred coworkers and supporters through the
      parking lot, to the doors of the supermarket.
      There they found that beefy security guards had
      closed them. They stood in front glaring at the
      women, who chanted and shook the pink placards
      and the carnations they'd handed out as an ironic
      comment on the Day of Love at Mi Pueblo.
      Robledo tried to explain that she was
      just there to give a letter to the store manager,
      asking for a meeting with Juvenal Chavez. The
      letter protested the injustice of her firing,
      while her alleged harasser continues to work.
      "Every Sunday," it said, "during your radio
      program we hear you saying that Mi Pueblo is a
      safe and dignifying place to shop and work. But
      the reality is that we are under a lot of
      pressure to make sure your company achieves its
      weekly and yearly sales goals. As a result, we
      suffer accidents and stress levels skyrocket."
      She pointed out that while each employee
      produces an average of $125,000 in annual sales,
      "many of us depend on subsidized public programs
      to make ends meet." After asking to meet with
      him directly, the letter condemned the
      immigration enforcement actions against workers,
      and asked Chavez to sign the Mercado code of
      The code is the creation of the Mercado
      Workers Association, set up with the help of
      Local 5 of the United Food and Commercial Workers
      to pressure for better conditions in the Mexican
      food stores proliferating across northern
      California. The UFCW estimates that there are
      about 7000 mercados nationally, which it defines
      as stores catering specifically to Latino and
      Asian neighborhoods. They employ about 300,000
      workers throughout the country, and about 30,000
      in California.
      Mi Pueblo, with 13 stores and 2500
      employees, is hardly the largest. That
      distinction belongs to Ranch 99 Supermarkets,
      with 31 stores in Asian communities, and
      Gonzalez/NorthGate Mercados, with 30 markets in
      Latino neighborhoods.
      The code's demands include obeying wage
      and hour laws, regular paychecks, two days of
      sick leave and a five-day vacation after a year,
      fair advertising and business standards, and the
      right to organize and protest unfair conditions.
      Most important to Robledo, it says "The Employer
      will not discharge or retaliate against any
      employee for the filing of a complaint over the
      enforcement of this Code or for filing a
      complaint with a government agency over
      violations of legally mandated workplace
      standards or rights."
      "I support the union effort at the
      stores," Robledo said. "Many people don't know
      their rights or how to defend themselves. If I'd
      had a union it would have made a real difference
      because it would have supported me. I would have
      been able to count on someone."
      Along with Local 5 members in the
      Valentines Day protest were members of a local
      coalition called Dignity and Resistance.
      Speaking for it was Ana Castaño, who told the
      crowd about her own experience getting fired in
      an immigration document audit at the Pacific
      Steel Castings foundry in Berkeley a year before.
      "What we learned," she said, "is that we have to
      have a voice. Firing us for not having papers,
      or firing Laura for protesting sexual harassment,
      it's all unjust. We can only stop it if we speak
      out, instead of being afraid."
      Juvenal Chavez, if he was in the store,
      never came out to confront his critics. The
      guards maintained their vigil, even though
      keeping the doors closed meant turning away their
      own customers. Finally, Robledo laid her letter
      down on the pavement in front of the entrance,
      and placed her pink carnations on top of it. One
      by one, the other women added their flowers to
      the bunch.
      The only one who didn't was Robledo's
      daughter. "I'm really angry at them," she
      declared. "I'm not going to give them any
      flowers." She said her mother made her feel
      proud. "I think she's really brave to stand up
      for her rights."
      As she got into the van to leave, Robledo
      said she'd be back. "I'm here to get justice
      about what was done to me," she said. "I've tried
      to give Juvenal Chavez my letter three times, and
      he's never been willing to receive it. I will
      continue what I'm doing until I get justice."

      Laura Robledo and her daughter.

      Ana Castaño talks about losing her job in an I-9
      immigration audit at Pacific Steel.

      The women get ready to march.

      Laura Robledo, letter in hand, leads marchers through the parking lot.

      But the guards close the doors and won't let them in.

      The demonstrators make their demand heard by chanting outside the store.

      A local immigrant rights activist demands that the store rehire Robledo.

      The pink placards call on Mi Pueblo to respect
      women, on the EEOC to investigate the stores, and
      demands justice for Robledo.

      Robledo puts her letter and carnations on the pavement in front of the doors.

      UFCW activists and other supporters add their carnations to hers.

      Coming in 2013 from Beacon Press:
      THE RIGHT TO STAY HOME: Ending Forced Migration
      and the Criminalization of Immigrants

      for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation on the
      political economy of immigration

      With Anoop Prasad on what's wrong with the
      current immigration reform proposals in
      Washington DC
      With Solange Echevarria of KWMR about growers
      push for guest worker programs. Advance to 88
      minutes for the interview.
      At the Gandhi-King Youth and Community Conference, Memphis 2011

      See also Illegal People -- How Globalization
      Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants
      (Beacon Press, 2008)
      Recipient: C.L.R. James Award, best book of 2007-2008

      See also the photodocumentary on indigenous migration to the US
      Communities Without Borders (Cornell University/ILR Press, 2006)

      See also The Children of NAFTA, Labor Wars on the
      U.S./Mexico Border (University of California,

      Entrevista con activistas de #yosoy132 en UNAM
      Interview by activists of #yosoy132 at UNAM (in Spanish)

      Two lectures on the political economy of migration

      For more articles and images, see http://dbacon.igc.org

      David Bacon, Photographs and Stories


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