Food Fight at Food City

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The perfect neighborhood grocery store-one with a variety of products, fresh produce, good prices and friendly staff ? is a precious commodity in Manhattan, and many Upper West Side residents have found that grocery store standby in Food City, a family-owned outpost on Columbus Avenue between West 94th and 95th streets. A seemingly intractable labor dispute, however, may be threatening the store's future and could soon result in another vacant retail space.

Food City, which also has a store in Brooklyn and one in Westchester, has been a union operation for over 50 years, but now the owners say that they cannot afford to operate with the current union contracts. The union, Local 338 of the Retail, Wholesale, Department Store Union (RWDSU)/United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), has responded with the familiar grotesque, giant inflatable rat, which they have stationed outside of Food City, urging locals not to support the business. Union representatives stand by it four days a week, handing out fliers, letting customers know that behind the scenes of the well-stocked food shelves inside, a battle for the future of the store rages.

"There's nobody around me that's union. It creates an unfair competitive environment," said Paul Berger, one of the owners of Food City. He said that if other area stores like Duane Reade or Whole Foods employed unionized workers, their prices would be more in line with what he can offer, but that since they pay their workers far less and don't shell out for benefits, non-union stores are driving him out of business.

"I have people that put frozen food in the cases, that's all they do-open a box and put frozen food in a case-that make $56,000 a year with five weeks vacation, full medical, dental, pension, time and half on weekends. I have multiple employees like that," Berger said. "As a business owner, it's become unprofitable to operate the way we're operating."

The union contends that Food City is just pinching pennies and trying to take benefits away from workers who have earned them, and that many workers earn far less than Berger's example.

"The reason for the informational picketing, the flyers and the rat is that the management has engaged in unfair labor practices, including intimidating workers, threatening to fire workers, interrogating workers about union meetings," said Joe Fontano, communications director for Local 338. "We're just trying to relay that message to [the public]."

Fontano said Food City wants to eliminate medical coverage for all workers except for assistant managers and managers, reduce pension benefits and stop pension contributions and reduce paid time off. He said that Food City walked away from negotiations last year and won't budge.

Berger doesn't dispute that he offered a reduction in some benefits, but said he didn't refuse to negotiate; his final offer was rejected and he wasn't willing to do much more, he said.

"We're going to offer our employees a job. We're going to cut vacation from five weeks to three, not cut anyone's pay," Berger said of his final offer to the union. "I'm going to keep my doors open. Other people in my position have closed their stores and sold them."

Fontano said Food City refused to even consider a proposal from the union that would have saved $50,000 over two years in medical costs, and that they aren't willing to compromise.

"They just want more profit, they just want to do it on the backs of the people working there," Fontano said.

As the fight continues and both sides dig in their heels, residents have become concerned about losing a popular grocery store.

"It's a neighborhood market, in a sense it's been there forever," said Mark Maas, a member of the West 94th Street Block Association who has been anxiously watching for developments at Food City. His concern, which he said many neighbors share, is a lack of good alternatives, both in price and quality, if Food City goes under.

"We can go to the Whole Foods up on 97th Street, we can go to the bodega on the corner, we can go to D'Agostino down on 91st and Columbus, but none of them are satisfactory because of the prices," Maas said.

Berger said that he simply isn't able to amend his last offer to the union, and that if they won't accept it, he'll cut his losses and close the store.

"It's sad for the Upper West Side that another grocery store might bite the dust," Berger said. "If I'm a bad person for paying someone $56,000 for packing broccoli, then I'm a bad person."

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