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Fresh Plus Grocery Fresh Start for Austin Wobs

By Marcus Denton, Lucy Parsons (Austin) IWW General Membership Branch - February 13, 2005.

As 2005 began in Austin, Texas, two IWW coworkers were fired for union activity, spurring a series of solidarity actions indicative of the rejuvenation in the Lucy Parsons General Membership Branch.

On January 7th, just one week after the first firing occurred, fifteen Wobs showed up at Fresh Plus, the charming, independent neighborhood grocery store and flagrant union buster in question, to fight the sacking of fellow worker Ryan Hastings. Members were energized as they voiced support and passed out leaflets to some of the storeís 25 employees and the customers inside the store, forcing supervisors to hunt around and pick up leaflets left behind. Outside in front of the store, Wobs leafleted and talked to customers about the firing until they were asked to leave, at which point a new batch took their place doing the same.

Ryan Hastings worked at Fresh Plus six months before being fired, a job he says he enjoyed despite its numerous drawbacks: low pay ($7/hr), no benefits, and no sick days. "The worst thing of all, the thing people were most pissed about was our domineering, overbearing boss who frequently made mistakes in his micromanaging," Hastings said, referring to general manager Paul Beurskens. Hastings began agitating for a union as soon as he was hired at the end of June 2004. "Everyone was receptive to the idea of being organized and running the shop ourselves," he explained. By November he and interested coworkers were meeting outside the store, and during the first weekend of December Hastings and fellow Wobs made house visits.

Sure enough, the following Monday Boss Paul gave Hastings his first write up; from then on store management accused this once-commended worker of breaking numerous rules. The other shoe finally dropped when a supervisor sent Hastings home early on December 27th; two days later Boss Paul called to tell him not to come into work -- he had been fired.

Back at the protest action, the store's anti-union stance was made even clearer when the same supervisor, Nicole Warrington, sent cashier Nellie Moore home early after she spent her break passing out leaflets in front of the store. Warrington said -- and two Wobs immediately verified -- that it was for talking about the union on the job. The next day at work Moore was written up twice and then fired by Boss Paul. Since her firing no other employee has openly come out in favor of the union.

Between FWs Moore and Hastings, the Austin GMB has filed ten charges with the NLRB, including two unlawful terminations and an overly broad No Solicitation policy. Our response has not been solely to rely on the NLRB, of course, and the branch's reaction to this injury to two has been exciting.

Wobs returned several more times to flier the generally receptive customers, both informally and for larger, planned events. On one humorous occasion a crowd of Wobs observed police officers tell an exasperated Boss Paul that they werenít going to issue a dozen or more No Trespass warnings and that heíd just have to call them again if we got back on the property after they left. On two occasions we brought out the red IWW banner, including once to lead a march of supporters from a nearby park to the store.

Such actions illustrate a jump in the branch's overall activity level in recent months. In addition to increased membership, another shopís brewing situation, and the Fresh Plus campaign, a long overdue Wob shop has been recognized and reinvigorated at Ecology Action, a recycling center that fired its boss two years ago and has since been operating as a collective, with better working conditions, scheduling, and pay. Noting the upsurge, Dan Elgin, branch president, stated, "It's the first time in many years thereís been a core group of Wobs wanting to organize a functioning One Big Union in Austin." But the difference is not only quantitative. According to Elgin, "This is the beginning of a change in focus of the branch where we increase membership in the minority union context by identifying targets based on organizing industrial branches rather than responding to hot shops."

Both former Fresh Plus workers agree on the support they've received. "It's been great," Nellie Moore said. "I feel like they've been a great resource to me and I wish the other employees would recognize that. They've outdone themselves."

Ryan Hastings concurs. "That was an amazing feeling. It demonstrated for me that we provide mutual aid for each others' actions. There are people there who are probably going to have struggles coming up, and I'll be there for them. If any Wobs have troubles, we have a posse."

Update - May 29, 2005

Fellow Worker Nellie Moore accepted a settlement offer from Fresh Plus Grocery a few days before the NLRB officially issued a complaint. The offer was for $1600 in back pay and a posting affirming the rights of workers to organize and acknowledging the settlement. The posting will be displayed in all locations for sixty days. Lucy Parsons GMB is planning further actions to support other Fresh Plus workers.

Fresh Plus Wobs Ryan Hastings and Nellie Moore; photo by Marcus Denton