Another View: Bill protects low-paid grocery workers

The op-ed attacking Assembly Bill 359 is a collection of misrepresentations that adds up to an attack on hardworking people and the notion of middle-class opportunity in California (“Grocery labor bill is bad for business,” Viewpoints, July 21).

Wall Street firms are chewing up grocery chains and spitting workers onto unemployment lines by the thousands. This bill is a common-sense policy that cushions the blow on local economies and gives grocery workers a reasonable time to transition.

AB 359 requires the new owners of large grocery stores to keep current employees for 90 days. They can still dismiss individual workers for cause, and aren’t forced to offer the same wages and benefits. The bill doesn’t force unions onto employers.

In contrast to Ronald Fong’s representation of AB 359 as a “retread of failed attempts to empower unions and force new burdensome regulations,” this bill builds upon several successful local ordinances, starting with one in Los Angeles. The California Grocers Association, where Fong is CEO, challenged this law all the way to the state Supreme Court before losing in 2011.

The “Big Labor” argument ignores the fact that grocery store wages have fallen significantly since 1999. More than half of workers now make poverty wages, below $22,458 a year. More than a third rely on some form of public assistance, costing the state more than $500 million a year – money that many view as a subsidy to the industry.

There has been a flurry of stores sold in Los Angeles and Santa Monica this year, where 90-day employee retention policies are already in place. These supposedly “burdensome” rules had zero impact on the industry’s growth in these cities.

The grocery industry in California records about $100 billion in revenue annually. Sales, profits and the number of stores have all been growing. Where have the benefits gone? Not to workers.

Much of it has gone to private equity firms that now own two of every five California grocery stores, but aren’t forced to open their books or disclose executive pay. These firms are making far higher profits than the 1 to 2 percent margins we so often hear about.

These are the poor souls Fong is trying to protect against members of Big Labor making slightly above the minimum wage.

Jim Araby is executive director of United Food and Commercial Workers, Western States Council.