This week, Tesco signaled its likely retreat from the U.S. market, suggesting that the Fresh & Easy experiment has been a failure. Rather than studying the successful model of mainstream union grocery stores, the British company abandoned its own union roots and created an entirely new business model for its American grocery chain.
Tesco has poured over £1 billion grocery stores in Southern California, Arizona and Nevada over the past five years. But this investment has not paid off for workers, customers, or investors. The UFCW has led the charge for the past five years, since the company opened its first store in California, to press Tesco into adopting a business model that works for all of Fresh & Easy’s many stakeholders.
When Fresh & Easy first opened, UFCW officials reached out to Tesco in good faith to find a fair process for American workers to join together in a union, just as the company’s British workers had their own union. Tesco executives refused to meet with UFCW leadership, giving the first sign that Fresh & Easy would not be cooperating with stakeholders.
At each turn, Fresh & Easy continued to rebuff the concerns of community stakeholders. Fresh & Easy’s low-staffing and 100 percent self-checkout model has made it difficult for the chain to compete with high levels of customer service offered by retail workers with a protected voice on the job. But this model also ran afoul of a push in California to reduce underage drinking by banning the sale of alcohol through self-checkout machines. The UFCW worked with Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Alcohol Justice, law enforcement and clergy to pass this public safety law. Instead of complying with the new law, Fresh & Easy antagonized the community by publicly opposing the law and supporting a lawsuit against the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
The UFCW’s efforts have empowered workers to speak out about problems in their stores. A majority of workers in a Los Angeles store signed cards declaring their desire to form a union, but never experienced a fair NLRB election. Undeterred, workers continued to speak out, traveling to London to attend an annual shareholders meeting and later forming The Committee for Success at Fresh & Easy to unite workers across stores.
UFCW has also engaged deeply with Tesco’s investors. Representatives of the UFCW and the Change to Win investment group have attended each of the last five annual shareholder meetings, educating investors and proposing shareholder amendments. A quarterly newsletter directed to investors directly addressed the company’s conduct and amplified investors’ rising skepticism of the company’s ability to reach profitability.
As the voice of American retail and grocery workers, the UFCW has worked to hold Tesco accountable to their workers, customers, and other stakeholders. But over and over again, Tesco has refused to engage with us, or our allies. Now, thousands of workers are facing a holiday season uncertain if their jobs or their stores will still be there next year.