mercado workers protest sexual harassment and firings
- MERCADO WORKERS PROTEST SEXUAL HARASSMENT AND FIRINGS
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
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
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 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
DISPLACED, UNEQUAL AND CRIMINALIZED - A Report
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
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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