LOS ANGELES — It's up to the workers, not management, whether employees at Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets want to join a union, Tim Mason, president and chief executive officer of the U.S.-based division of Tesco, said last week at a luncheon meeting of Town Hall Los Angeles.
“This is not a management issue,” he told a clergyman in the audience who asked a question. “You're talking to the wrong person. It's the staff at the stores that decides.
“Some staff members at one store came to the company and asked us to recognize the union, and we told them to put it to a secret ballot. But it never went to a vote because they knew that in secrecy, the effort had no chance. They represented the views of a small minority of people, not the majority.”
The clergyman, Rabbi Jonathan Klein — who told SN he represented Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, or CLUE — also charged that Fresh & Easy has been found guilty of several unfair labor practices and that it had turned down opportunities to speak with religious leaders.
“No one can refuse to meet with religious leaders,” Mason responded, “but that's how it sounds when you ask the question as you do.”
Regarding unfair labor practices, Mason said, “We do face an awful lot of unfair labor practice charges, as have others who have walked this path before. But on every matter of fact and procedure, a judge found we acted according to law.
“However, in a limited number of cases that involved ‘he said/she said’ situations, we lost, and we have learned from that and moved on.”
As attendees entered the hotel where the luncheon was held, they were handed fliers urging Fresh & Easy to “let your workers freely choose a union.”
The flier claimed the chain had threatened and interrogated employees for trying to form a union; restricted employees from communicating with each other; and conducted surveillance on employees.
“All Fresh & Easy employees deserve the right to form a union if they choose, free from intimidation and fear,” the flier said.
In other remarks during his presentation:
•Mason said Fresh & Easy plans to add bakeoffs at several new stores and to retrofit several existing stores to accommodate in-store bakeries that will feature products, including new varieties, from Il Fornaio, its bakery supplier.
The stores with bakeries will install ovens in the backroom and knock out part of a wall to expose them to customers to demonstrate the freshness of the product, a Fresh & Easy spokesman told SN following the meeting.
- • Mason said the company sees opportunities for at least 70 more stores in Los Angeles alone, though it could take years to work through the city’s bureaucracy to get that many locations open.
“We want to continue to grow in California and to open several dozen more stores in all kinds of neighborhoods,” Mason said. Of Fresh & Easy’s 176 stores, 127 are in California, 28 are in Phoenix and 21 are in Las Vegas.
- • He implied that Tesco may consider additional formats in the U.S.
“Tesco has an Express format in other countries that sells fresh fruits and vegetables, and that format runs about 3,000 square feet. And you couldn’t enter a market like California with 250,000-square-foot stores.
“So we have a number of formats bigger and smaller than the [10,000-square-foot] stores we operate now, and we look at those all the time. But when you are a bricks-and-mortar retailer, you are dependent on the liquidity of the real estate market.”
- • Mason said there are various ways Fresh & Easy can gear its stores to various demographic models, “but we don’t think fragmenting the market is the right thing to do at this time. Fresh & Easy is geared to appeal to people who want fresh, affordable food, and that’s everybody. So there’s still a tremendous amount we can do along those lines, and we’re not yet at the leading edge of what we could do.”