It's been six months since the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) called for a boycott against El Super, a Mexico-based mega grocery chain with stores in OC. A majority of its locations remain non-union with workers suffering poor pay and benefits because of it, but picketers holding the line claim to have caused the chain a 10% decrease in sales so far.
Not all is happy with the picketers, though. The Orange County Workers Information Project (OCWIP) has put up a petition asking for the same rights they fought to get grocery workers at El Super. This came as a result of the firing of Ricardo Muñiz, a prominent local DREAM activist, who was helping labor in the boycott.
Muñiz first joined the lines in December, getting recruited and hired by the Orange County Voters Information Project, a branch of the OC Labor Federation, where he trained. "I am a fighter of labor rights, I do believe in workers," he says of why he took the job. The pay was okay; just a shade under $15 per hour, seven hours a day, four days a week.
The 26-year-old DREAM activist took his first shot at labor organizing. Before that, he served as president of Fullerton DREAM Team at Fullerton Junior College and even campaigned to stop his own deportation in 2011. Muñiz–who's headed to Cal State Dominguez Hills in the fall–fought for district elections in Anaheim, doing paid canvassing in the lead up to last year's elections. He leveraged that experience to become an Anaheim picket captain in the El Super boycott.
Growing up in the Guinida Lane barrio, Muñiz was able to convince residents there to stop shopping at the only grocery store within convenient walking distance. "The community knew me, which did help a lot," he says. "My mom had already shopped there and bought rotten, green meat, so I already knew about the store." El Super's been dinged for numerous health code violations and Muñiz showed shoppers gross pictures of what that looked like.
But one day, there was trouble on the line. "A worker at El Super asked me, 'What kind of benefits do you get?'" Muñiz recalls. "I had to bullshit my way out of it." The picketers are campaigning to get grocery workers unionized for paid sick days, steady work schedules, and health benefits, all things they didn't enjoy themselves.
Then came International Workers' Day, aka May Day. Muñiz and fellow picketer Lupita Cisneros helped organize a march in SanTana for worker and immigrant rights but didn't get time off to attend. They left during their lunch break anyway and came back late.
Three days later Muñiz says he got fired for failing to sign people in and out of their own lunch break. It's something another picket captain, Yolanda Muñiz, his sister, also didn't do but without getting axed for it. People called and emailed, asking that he get his job back. When that didn't work out, supporters, including his sister and niece, walked off the picket line in protest.
"We wanted to make a statement," says Cisneros, who already got written up for being 45 minutes late on May Day. "They weren't paying attention to the community." One line in Anaheim got shut down momentarily. Cisneros and three others knew they risked getting fired for their action. The picketers were replaced the next day. They all took their cause to UFCW Union Local 324 in Buena Park, with nothing coming out of it.
"The cases…are internal matters which we can not discuss," says OCLF Executive Director Julio Perez. He also oversees OC VIP. "But I can assure you [Muñiz] was fired with due cause and per the law."
Muñiz isn't getting his job back, but continues the boycott on a personal level. "I'm still not shopping at El Super," he says. A petition is being circulated by his fellow fired colleagues to demand worker rights for picketers. "It will strengthen them and help the labor movement more."
Follow Gabriel San Román on Twitter @gsanroman2