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Union Organizing Flap Puts Picket Line In Front Of Gourmet Grocery

September 15, 1996

NEW YORK (AP) _ At Citarella, a well-known gourmet grocery on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the artfully arranged fish in the front window is getting less attention these days than the picket line on the sidewalk outside.

Since Thursday, representatives of the United Food & Commercial Workers International union have picketed and handed flyers to shoppers and others who pass the busy corner of Broadway and 75th Street. The activists accuse Citarella’s owners of firing three workers who tried to organize a union.

Citarella’s management denies the charge and has posted signs outside the store: ``These people are NOT Citarella employees″ and ``NOTICE TO THE PUBLIC: These people are total strangers to us. Citarella employees are inside waiting to serve you.″

For residents of the Upper West Side, many of whom mix upward mobility and social consciousness, it all raises a touchy issue: What takes precedence, political principle or pleasure for the palate?

``I would never cross a picket line,″ said Marjorie Scheer, a social worker who stopped Sunday to take a pamphlet from pickets. ``I want to learn more. I would never shop at a place that prevented workers from organizing.″

A customer who was picking up an order of fish for Rosh Hashanah and declined to give her name was less certain about where she stood. ``You really have to be right smack in the middle of a situation to make a judgment,″ the woman said. ``Who am I to make a judgment?″

Citarella manager John Corbo wouldn’t say why the three workers were fired, but said it was ``absolutely not″ because they were trying to organize a union.

The UFCW has tried and failed to organize the store’s more than 50 workers at least twice in recent months, Corbo said.

UFCW organizer Ruben Anderson said Isidro Lopez, who worked for 11 years at the store, was fired last month after agitating for a union.

Two other labor activists, Victor Armas and Andres Martinez, were let go earlier in the summer, Anderson said. Citarella management told Armas and Martinez that business was slow, but hired four new workers days later, Anderson said.

Pickets are demanding the reinstatement of the fired workers and an end to what the union calls interference with efforts to organize, Anderson said.

Unionized workers at the Fairway and D’Agostino groceries on the same block as Citarella enjoy overtime pay, medical benefits, paid holidays and vacation, and job security, Anderson said.

Citarella workers, on the other hand, can be fired at will and are paid below minimum wage, he said.

Corbo declined to discuss the store’s pay scale but said Citarella offers employees a medical plan, life insurance, paid vacation, holidays, sick leave and time-and-a-half for overtime.

The picket line has not hurt business, Corbo said.

But Richard Morris, a retired schoolteacher and former union member, said he would boycott Citarella.

``I won’t shop there,″ Morris said. ``If it’s all true about the firing of the three people, then I have to feel sympathy for the workers.″

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