Former Mi Pueblo employees begin hunger strike

April 21, 2011 8:00:45 PM PDT
Four former employees of Mi Pueblo Food Center have started a two-day hunger strike to protest layoffs in January. The company considers it part of a campaign to organize its workers, while a coalition formed to negotiate with Mi Pueblo says its focus is strictly humanitarian.

The two sides do not seem to agree on anything. Gerardo Dominguez, a spokesperson for the Justice for Mercado Workers Coalition, says Mi Pueblo fired 300 workers in January. Perla Rodriguez, Mi Pueblo's Vice President Of Public Affairs, says the number is 150. Dominguez is also an organizer for Local 5 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

Antonio Martinez plans to fast on a public sidewalk for the next two days in front of the Mi Pueblo store at the busy intersection of Story and King roads in San Jose. He worked as a forklift operator at Mi Pueblo's warehouse for two and a half years. He has not been able to find a new job, which he says is a hardship since he has five children to support.

Mi Pueblo says that the chain of 19 stores is facing tough economic times and its profit margin is a slim 1-2 percent. Rodriguez points out that three competing grocery chains folded last year -- PW Market, Cosentino's and Su Vianda.

"If we don't react quickly and carefully, our business might not be here next year," Rodriguez said.

However, the workers' coalition says the company is expanding. Mi Pueblo opened a store in Seaside last month and it is opening a store in Vallejo this summer and a store in Turlock in the fall. The company also received praise when it opened a store in East Palo Alto two years ago, creating jobs as the recession was triggering widespread layoffs.

Pastor John Sullivan, a Lutheran minister and a member of the Santa Clara County Interfaith Council on Economic Justice, says the layoofs create a hardship.

"These are bad times, these low-income workers, relatively low-income workers, really can't stand this kind of disruption in their monthly income," Sullivan said.

Sullivan says attempts have been made to meet with Mi Pueblo's owner, Juvenal Chavez, to discuss the issue. However, they have only been able to meet with other managers, including Perla Rodriguez.

Mi Pueblo has 19 stores in Northern California and 3,000 employees.

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