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Smart & Final workers strike amid accusations of retaliation

Hundreds of employees at two Smart & Final warehouses went on strike last week amid accusations the retail chain’s parent company retaliated against them for unionizing and is planning mass layoffs.

About 600 workers at the facilities in the City of Commerce and Riverside walked off the job Thursday.

The work stoppage comes after a year of increasing tensions between the workers and Grupo Chedraui, the Mexican company that owns Smart & Final.

At a meeting with employees in May last year, a Smart & Final executive announced that the company planned to close five Southern California distribution centers. The executive told employees at the warehouses they would be terminated and have to reapply for their jobs for lower pay when a new 1.4-million-square-foot facility in Rancho Cucamonga opened, according to several workers who attended the meeting.

The announcement came shortly after workers at the City of Commerce facility had voted to unionize and days before a union election was scheduled to be held at the Riverside distribution center, leading to claims by employees and union officials that the move was in retaliation for the unionization push.

Teamsters Local 630, which represents the workers, has filed more than 30 unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging the company is interfering with workers’ right to organize, among other claims.

Chedraui denies that its actions were retaliatory, saying the planned warehouse closures are part of a plan to integrate “five outdated and capacity-strained facilities that are spread across 2,000 square miles.”

“The Teamsters’ claims are simply not true,” the company said in an emailed statement. “Our new facility will employ nearly 1000 people, creating hundreds more American jobs than exist today. This will substantially reduce our carbon footprint and enable us to continue providing affordable food to communities in California that need it the most.”

Chedraui said the strike, which began Thursday, hasn’t caused any major disruptions in its operation of distribution centers.

Grupo Chedraui acquired Smart & Final in 2021 for $620 million through its American subsidiary, Chedraui USA. Along with Smart & Final it operates two other chains in the U.S., El Super and Fiesta Mart, making it the fourth-largest grocery retailer in California, according to company news releases. It also operates stores in Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and Nevada.

Many of the Smart & Final warehouse workers have been with the company for more than 20 or 30 years and make about $32 per hour, union organizers and workers said in interviews. At job fairs for prospective hires at the new distribution center, Chedraui is advertising pay at $20 an hour, the organizers and employees claim.

“Things are very uncertain for us,” said Daniel Delgado, who has worked for more than 19 years at Smart & Final’s distribution center in Riverside. With the strike, “we are trying to send the company a message — a message that we are tired of being looked at as a faceless number.”

“We know this company has made billions of dollars off our backs,” he said.

Chedraui USA had $7.5 billion in domestic sales in 2022, a 137% increase over its 2021 revenue, according to an analysis of the nation’s top 100 retailers by the National Retail Federation.

In April, state Assemblymember Chris Holden (D-Pasadena) wrote to Chedraui , warning that the company’s plan to force warehouse workers to reapply for jobs appeared to violate a law he authored last year. The measure, Assembly Bill 647, aims to protect jobs of grocery employees, including warehouse workers, in the event of mergers or reorganizations of companies.

And Daniel Yu, assistant chief of the California Labor Commissioner’s Office, sent a letter in May to Chedraui, urging the company to suspend its plans to relocate its facility and delay hiring in order for his office to collect evidence to determine whether the company’s actions violate labor law.

The decision to strike this month came after a three-week work stoppage last year and other protests by employees. Maurice Thomas was among hundreds of workers who rallied outside a Smart & Final in Burbank in August. He joined the company about three years ago, leaving his job at a Frito-Lay plant in Texas to take care of his parents in California.

“It’s been real, real tough,” Thomas said. “The company has no interest in bargaining with us, they are delaying until either we give up or they move to this new facility without us. But we are not going down without a fight,” he said.

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