Farmer Joe's Woes 

Labor issues have plagued a popular mom 'n' pop market.

Last July, Joe and Diana Tam opened a second Farmer Joe's market in Oakland. That's something all can agree upon. But everything else has seemed up in the air ever since the mom-and-pop grocery store has devolved into a labor battleground.

Former employee Nydia Williams says the Tams fired her for trying to unionize the store. Diana Tam counters that Williams was fired "with cause" and that the incidents were fully documented. The incident in question, Williams says, was an altercation with another employee, which she resolved with management.

That was in November, and Williams kept working as head cashier for the following month. It was her organizing efforts, she says, that made management uneasy. "One of the managers was going around asking employees, 'Did Nydia get you to sign the pledge card?' Less than two weeks later, I was fired," she says. The termination notice said she had violated 21 meal breaks.

United Food and Commercial Workers says fourteen other workers have also been fired for union activities. Marcus Smith was an early union supporter who was accused of fighting and later fired. He claims Joe Tam runs the store like a dictatorship: "If you're not loyal, you're a castaway."

Victor Blanco says his manager told him explicitly that he was being fired for supporting the union. He was accused of stealing from the meat counter, but says he and a co-worker simply made pricing mistakes. Both employees were reprimanded, but only Blanco was fired.

The union also claims the store has hired the "union-busting" American Consulting Group. Joe Tam at first denied the store had hired a consultant, then clarified that someone had been hired to "educate employees" about unionization and other issues, like job safety. When asked for the consultant's name, Tam said he didn't remember.

"We Will Defend Our Employees' Rights, Honor Their Decision, and Follow the Law," banners in the Dimond district store declare. But what management calls fair and legal — an election monitored by the National Labor Relations Board — the union calls potentially coercive. "If it was a clean setting, we might have been able to do an NLRB election," the UFCW's Mike Henneberry says. The union feels the Tams have used their unfettered access to intimidate and influence employees.

Instead, the union proposes that the store allow a "card check," in which union status is determined not by a vote, but by counting cards that employees fill out to indicate their desire to unionize.

The Tams won't sign on. "It's a privacy issue," Joe Tam says. A card check would require him to divulge employee information he considers confidential. Diana Tam says union officials have already gone directly to workers' homes, catching them in pajamas. (Henneberry notes that NLRB elections also would compel the grocer to release contact information.)

Joe Tam is frustrated by the union's tactics. He says organizers speak of better pay and benefits, but not union dues — "promising the world," Tam says, while he is left to sign the paychecks. He feels he treats his employees with respect, and was disconcerted when union pledge cards began circulating late last year. "I told my workers, 'Do not sign this card.'"

Diana Tam says she appreciates the importance of unions, especially in large-scale businesses. But at a family store like Farmer Joe's, she says, employees can bring grievances directly to employers. "We have a good relationship with our employees. Any issues that ever came up, we were able to solve them."

Henneberry thinks the Tams may have another agenda. "It all boils down to money," he says.

Friday evening pickets at the store, which began in January, started out tense but have since become pretty nonconfrontational. On a recent Friday, union supporters politely handed out fliers while Joe Tam stood nearby, greeting customers with his broad grin. The only hostilities came from angry customers sniping at unionites. The union has called for customer boycotts on picket days, and Henneberry claims business is noticeably slower on Fridays.

Frances Farmer stood with union supporters, calling herself a former and, she hopes, future customer. She began boycotting when her favorite checker —Williams — was fired, but is optimistic that the Tams will "do the right thing" and allow the card check.

Everyone says they want Farmer Joe's to succeed. Neighborhood residents appreciate the Tams' bold investment in the less-than-yuppie intersection of Fruitvale and MacArthur, replacing a bleak 99-cent store called Crazy John's. "They did a great thing for this neighborhood," resident Kristine Dang says. "People are eating organic food and using sustainable products." Dang and others also have an abiding respect for the Tams' bootstraps-first ascent from immigrant beginnings.

And the Tams are undeniably good grocers. Joe got his start working produce at Safeway, where he was a UFCW member, and he still has a keen eye for that perfect bunch of spinach. "It's what he loves," his wife says. "He thinks it's an art to get it right."

But some locals fear the couple's sterling reputation will be tarnished if the battle rages on too long. "Clean it up," one resident wrote on a community blog. "People will shop elsewhere."

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