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Roundtable: Supermarket workers vote on whether to strike in Southern California

 March 25, 2022 at 12:00 PM PDT

S1: This week on roundtable. From Frontline Heroes to fighting for a living wage , San Diego grocery workers say they need more to survive. Could they walk off the job to make it happen ? Embracing Renewables. More San Diego communities will soon have greater access to wind and solar energy and two years of telling asylum seekers that they're not welcome. Is the U.S. any closer to ending a Trump era immigration rule kept alive by President Biden ? I met Hoffman and this is KPBS roundtable. A lot has changed when it comes to the way we work over the last couple of years. More of us are working from home and on flexible schedules. But there are many jobs where that's just not possible. That includes the many San Diegans who keep our grocery store stocked. Right now , they're deciding whether to authorize a strike , which is something that we haven't seen locally in well over a decade. Alexander Winn is covering the negotiations for KPBS and the likelihood of a big escalation in these contract talks. Welcome back to Roundtable , Alex.
S2: Well , thank you , Matt.
S1: So , Alex , this could impact a lot of San Diegans.
S2: And in San Diego County , there are about 9000 union workers and around 6000 of them are affected by this contract. But this vote could affect the whole entire Southern California. So we're talking about more than 47,000 workers here.
S1: Now , a lot of times these contracts come down to money.
S2: And just for reference , the average grocery worker's in California makes about $16 an hour , according to Ziprecruiter , which is an online job search engine. The union says that the minimum wage is going up this year and some workers with years of experience are making as little as $2 more an hour than newly hired workers , which is what they're fighting for.
S1: We've seen many entry level positions in retail and fast food raise their pay to attract workers. That's not just due to COVID staffing shortages , but also things like inflation. Here's local UFC president Tod Walters talking about pay disparities in this line of work.
S2: One , we want a livable.
S1: Wage in San Diego. What's happened is the minimum.
S2: Wage has caught up with.
S1: Some of our middle wage brackets , two , where they're hiring people. With.
S2: With.
S1: 20 years of. We've got members that have 20 , 30 years of service and there's people getting hired making one or $2 an hour less than them. There's a huge disparity.
S2: And another thing , worker says , the costs of basic necessities are going up , but their wages have not. Meanwhile , during the pandemic , grocery stores have make billions of dollars in profits. They're one of the few industries that saw record profits during the pandemic. Worker says they feel like they've been forgotten or left behind.
S1: We're talking with KPBS reporter Alexander Wen and Alex. This wouldn't be the first time that a union went on strike to negotiate better pay and benefits.
S2: And that strike lasted about four months and was one of the largest and longest supermarket strikes in the United States. And it cost stores roughly $1.5 billion. I mean , it was resolved when the union agreed to a two year contract where newly hired workers start at a lower base salaries in return for health care benefits and pension funds. Now , both sides then claimed victory for that won something new.
S1: This time , though , is the COVID dynamic. We all remember the early weeks of the pandemic when grocery workers were being praised for keeping stores open. They made sure people were socially distanced and in some cases , set aside special hours for seniors.
S2: As you remember , at the beginning of the pandemic , these workers got what is known as hero pay , which is about a $2 an hour additional. But that went away about six months into the pandemic. And they say they're still at risk for contracting COVID 19 every day.
S1: Something else that's changing our COVID 19 regulations , we've seen a lot of them ease.
S2: And that and the high stress these workers have been under , working long hours because of the workers shortage is beginning to take a toll on them.
S1: Recently , we saw a strike among sanitation workers for Republic Services in Chula Vista , and that impacted other parts of the county. People may remember they held out for about a month over the holidays. Has the grocery union said how a strike might ? Lay out here if that's what they end up deciding to do.
S2: It's not an economic strike. The union is alleging unfair labor practices , which gives them a bit more options. For example , they could strike at one particular store. What the union is saying is that at the stores are intimidating workers by videotaping them at rallies. They are also using ghost kitchens with non-union workers to prepare deli foods , for example.
S1: So negotiations are continuing here.
S2: This is just one of the tools for bargaining. In 2019 , if you remember , workers voted to authorize a strike. But negotiations continue for two more months before an agreement was reached and avoiding a strike altogether.
S2: They say they're ready to go to strike and they want the stores to not drag this out and play what is known as , you know , poker with them. They just want a resolution. They want their demands met and they're preparing for a strike. For example , the union president told me that he has ordered about 3000 banners and signs and sticks ready for the strike.
S1: I've been speaking with Alexander when he's a multimedia reporter here at KPBS. And Alex , thanks so much for being here on Roundtable.
S2: Thanks , Matt. It's great to be here.
S1: Last week , we talked about the recent spike in new bills. On a related note , more San Diegans will soon have more flexibility and the kind of energy that they use. Enter in competition , at least for electricity. Renewables are a key piece of our region's climate goals , and a recently formed agency called San Diego Community Power is giving customers the option to buy a greater percentage from sources like wind and solar. The rates could even be cheaper than what we're paying now. KPBS reporter Andrew Bowen has been going over all of this , the rollout which will see a big expansion soon. Great to have you here on Roundtable , Andrew. Hey , Matt. So we're in the early stages of this new thing called community power. What is this ? Is it a new power company or can you explain what exactly it is ? Sure.
S3: San Diego. In 2019 , the city council voted to form what's called a community choice aggregation program. It's kind of a mouthful , but basically these are government agencies that take over the responsibility of purchasing wholesale electricity on behalf of customers. They take over that responsibility from , in most cases , a private utility. So whereas previously , Jenny has been , you know , signing all of these contracts with electricity generating facilities , power plants and determining , you know , how much of that portfolio of electricity was coming from renewables versus natural gas , etc. , going forward in the areas that it serves , San Diego community power will be making those decisions.
S3: They started that earlier this year. Starting in April , they'll be serving homes and seniors. And then in May , they'll have a really big expansion into homes in San Diego and Chula Vista National City and San Diego County , the county government. We're kind of late comers to this organization. So homes in those jurisdictions , National City and the unincorporated areas of the county will be part of the launch next year.
S1: So people and businesses , they can opt out of this if they want to. But it seems like everyone is enrolled right away. Right.
S3: These agencies , by state law , have to offer customers the option to opt out. Right now , San Diego Community Power is serving about 70,000 customers , again , mostly businesses. By next year , once they've completed their expansion to homes in National City and the unincorporated areas , they'll be serving about 950,000 customers. So this is more than a ten fold expansion that's going to be happening over the next year. And most customers , frankly , probably won't notice a difference. There's a slightly different calculation on a line item in your in your bill. And this is an important point of what community choice is and what it isn't. So Genie will continue to maintain the grid , the system of wires and substations and power lines that actually deliver all of that electricity to homes and businesses. San Diego community power is taking over only that narrow responsibility of determining where to buy the electricity.
S1: We're talking with KPBS reporter Andrew Bowen. And Andrew , people might be listening to this and saying , okay , sounds good , but will it save me money ? You did the math on your own , Bill. How did it pencil out for you ? Yeah.
S3: San Diego Community Power has a tool on their website where you can basically input some data from your most recent SDG and Ebell and see , okay , how much did I pay that month under SDG Annie's electricity product , and how much might I save under this new product offered by San Diego Community Power ? So I put in all of our inputs from my home's most recent electricity bill , and it was $0.13 cheaper. So really not a dramatic savings. And I think some folks probably would have hoped that it would have been more of a dramatic savings , especially given how expensive electricity is right now. But at this point in San Diego , community powers , life , they're really just a startup. And they they need to be building up their reserves , making sure they're on solid financial footing before they can use these options of really steep discounts. The power 100 option for 100% renewable energy for me was only about two or $3 more on my bill. And you can actually switch back and forth. You know , you can you can try out 100% renewable energy for a few months if you feel like , yeah , and this doesn't really make me feel any different or , you know , I want to save a couple of dollars on my electricity bill , then you can switch back to their default product.
S1: So early on. It sounds like , bottom line , your bill might not be fluctuating too much one way or another. But I'm curious. This is more about transitioning away from fossil fuels. How is this a piece of that larger puzzle ? Yeah.
S3: So , I mean , really , the creation of this agency came from the city of San Diego's Climate Action Plan. And a really crucial part of that plan , which binds the city to make really dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions , was switching the city over to 100% renewable energy by 2035. And that is the timeline. The San Diego community power will probably actually reach 100% renewable before that deadline. Again , I said they're really in their early. They call themselves a startup and so they're building up their reserves. If they had decided to offer dramatically cheaper rates compared to Jenny's product , they would have had financial problems down the line. The selling point at this point is not so much how much you might save on your electricity bill , but how much more renewable energy you're getting. You know , it's not it's not more it's certainly not more. You're getting a lot more renewable energy for basically the same price , you know , maybe a tiny bit cheaper.
S1: Another selling point for San Diego Community Power is a more public decision making process.
S3: And all of those decisions will be made in , you know , publicly noticed meetings by the board of directors for this organization , which is made up entirely of elected officials. So those elected officials , there's kind of this democratization of decision making aspect of community choice. That's really interesting because previously those decisions were made by officials and in boardrooms or maybe up in San Francisco at the Public Utilities Commission. Going forward , those decisions will be made here locally by our own government.
S1: We'll be watching this continued roll out as it happens. Andrew Bowen will be covering it. He's our guest here on KPBS Roundtable. And Andrew , thanks so much for your time.
S3: My pleasure , Matt.
S1: The last few weeks , we've been talking with local journalists about Russia's invasion of Ukraine and how the war is forcing millions of refugees to find safe havens around the world. It hasn't been that easy at our southern border. Only a handful of Ukrainians have made it into the U.S.. That's because for the last two years , America's asylum system has been effectively , at times shut down. Here's KPBS border reporter Gustavo Solis.
S4: And Title 42. And Title 42.
S2: Title 42 was first implemented by the Trump administration in March 2020. It allows officials to use the pandemic as a justification for turning away asylum seekers at the southern border. But most of the pandemic restrictions along the border have now been lifted. Activists are calling for an end to Title 42 , which has kept thousands of vulnerable migrants from getting a fair hearing for their asylum cases. Lindsey Tesla Sky is the executive director of the Immigrant Defenders Law Center.
S4: Today , the U.S. government continues to unlawfully expel individuals and families with absolutely no due process.
S2: Since President Biden took office in January 20 , 21 , more than 9000 migrants who have been turned away via Title 42 ended up as victims of violent crime in Mexico. According to Human Rights First. Gustavo Solis , KPBS News.
S1: And we have Gustavo here as our guest on roundtable. Welcome back , Gustavo.
S2: Hello , Matt.
S1: Good to have you here. So earlier this week , Mark , two years since the rule went into place at the border , we've discussed it quite a bit. It's known as Title 42. Has there been any movement on this from those in a position to change the policy , to end it or may be modified ? A lot of times we hear these are Trump era policies , but we're certainly in the Biden administration. Definitely.
S2: Definitely. And that's something that's important to keep in mind as we talk about this. Right. These are Trump era policies that the Biden administration is continuing to implement. So at some point , they're kind of becoming Biden policies as well. Now , to your question about has there been any movement by those in a position of power to end it or modify it ? Short answer is no , not really. I mean , the last time Title 42 was modified was back in May of this year , so kind of recently. But all that there was an exempted unaccompanied minors. And on the ground anecdotally what that resulted in is families so separating. Right. You have a mother traveling with two teenagers. They hear that unaccompanied minors are exempt. So the mother just tells the two teenagers , okay , at least you two can go. You can go. I'll stay here and we'll figure out the rest later. But in terms of fully rescinding Title 42 , there has been no action from the federal government. And even as there's a growing list of Democrats who are publicly asking the Biden administration to end it. I mean , the closest thing we have is reporting that this kind of sourcing anonymous sources saying that the Biden administration might consider ending it next month. But that isn't really solid at this point.
S1: Some of your reporting for KPBS includes Customs and Border Protection data. What does the agency say when it comes to , you know , just how many people have been turned away or denied entry due to an asylum claim ? Yeah.
S2: So the government data shows that Title 42 has been used to turn people away 1.7 million times. And to be clear , that doesn't mean 1.7 million people have been turned away , because in many cases a single individual will be turned away multiple times. And that's important to keep in mind , because it also impacts CBP's apprehension numbers. Right. A few months ago , I'm sure the audience will remember this how there were multiple stories about a record number of apprehensions at the southern border. And it's true , there were a record number of apprehensions , but that doesn't necessarily mean a record number of people being apprehended. Title 42 has kind of created this revolving door. So people are trying to cross getting apprehended as much as a dozen times and then doing it over and over again. So that is driving up a lot of the numbers.
S1: We've seen a handful of Ukrainian refugees admitted to the United States at our southern border here. Title 42 allows exemptions on a case by case basis. Gustavo , do we know why they were granted entry beyond simply ? You know that so much attention is being paid on this Ukraine invasion right now. If you can try to decode this for us.
S2: Yeah , I mean , we don't really have much information. We do know that the decision to accept Ukrainians came from the top , from the head of the Department of Homeland Security. So it is a directive that , like I said , came from the top. But besides that , we don't know much else. Right. As as we said before , Title 42 gives border officials absolute discretion over who is allowed in. And the truth is that they can easily grant the same exceptions that they've been giving to Ukrainians , to asylum seekers from other parts of the world. But the federal government hasn't published any sort of public guidelines over who gets discretion or why. So from the outside looking in , it's completely arbitrary at this point.
S1: KPBS border reporter Gustavo Solis is our guest. And Gustavo , activists say that part of the motivation. For these decisions is racism. And to be clear , they're not saying that Ukrainians are not worthy of admission here. They're sort of saying that everyone else should have the same opportunity. Right. Right.
S2: Right. Exactly. No one's upset that Ukrainians are getting access to asylum. They're just upset that only Ukrainians are getting access to asylum. And I would say on the motivation , I don't know if activists or most activists would say that the motivation is explicitly racist. I think they would argue it's the motivation is geopolitical. Right. There's a war in Ukraine is very present in in our world right now. Everyone knows what it is. So it's kind of difficult to ignore. But in practice , because Ukraine happens to be a majority white country , the outcome of that decision is itself racist. On the ground , it's impossible to ignore the fact that black and brown asylum seekers have been systematically shut out of the asylum process for two years now. And all of a sudden , in a matter of weeks , these white asylum seekers are getting across , I mean , independent of motivation and intent. Just those optics alone are really , really hard to reconcile.
S1: So COVID 19 case levels are more manageable now , and most day to day restrictions are gone.
S2: By Title 42 is technically a public health order that was issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We know now through reporting that it was mostly politically motivated. We know from reporting that top doctors at the CDC were against Title 42 and the Trump administration back then went around them and went directly to the head of the CDC to have this rolled out in place. I have asked the CDC for justification and they sent me to the White House and then I'll ask the White House for justification. And they sent me to the CDC. It doesn't make any sense when you take into account that any American citizen can cross the border without even needing proof of vaccination. Mexican citizens on tourist visas can cross. They need to show a vaccination. But we have a lot of vaccinations. We have rapid testing. Even with Title 42 , there's no built in exemption for asylum seekers who are vaccinated. So to say that this is a because of the pandemic , every day that goes on , it just becomes more and more of a joke on its face. Given everything that's going on around the mask , mandates and everything else.
S1: Well , it sounds like that this definitely is not going away any time soon.
S2: All stories are fun to work on , but I like to in our border coverage , we like to expand beyond just what everyone here is about. The border , right ? Not just focus on migration and crime and different things. So I am working on one that should be done by next week about the growing tech center in Tijuana and how Tijuana is actually benefiting from a labor shortage in the US right now when it comes to developers. So that will be interesting , just how that cross-border economy works. And you know , Silicon Valley companies that are having a hard time hiring developers in the US , they might be looking to Mexico to hire those developers over there because they've been as a country , Mexico is producing a lot of them.
S1: That's our KPBS border reporter Gustavo Solis. And Gustavo , thanks so much for talking with us today.
S2: Yeah , thank you , Matt. I appreciate you having me on.
S1: On that theme of the immigrant and refugee experience. This week , the U.S. lost the first woman to hold the office of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was battling cancer. She was 84. Just a few years ago , in 2019 , she delivered the commencement address at UC San Diego. She shared part of her remarkable American story.
S4: You're also only a dozen miles from our southern border where there is a humanitarian crisis made far worse by the indifference of this administration to the desperate plight of migrants from Central America. On these challenges and others. I am going to interrupt myself to do my immigrant moment , which is one of the things I love to do , is to give naturalization certificates to new citizens. And the first time I did it was July 4th , 2000 , at Monticello , Jefferson's home. Since I had his job , I thought I could do that. So I gave this man his naturalization certificate. And as he's walking away , he says , Can you believe it ? I'm a refugee , and I have just gotten my naturalization certificate from the secretary of state. And so I went after him and I said , Can you believe that a refugee is secretary of state ? That is why we.
UU: Need to care. Again.
S1: Again. That was former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright , herself an immigrant from Czechoslovakia , speaking to the graduating class of 2019 at UC San Diego. Thanks so much for tuning into this week's edition of KPBS Roundtable. And I want to thank my guests all from KPBS News multimedia reporter Alexander Wen , Metro reporter Andrew Bowen and border reporter Gustavo Solis. If you missed any part of our show , you can listen anytime on the KPBS Roundtable podcast. I'm Matt Hoffman. Join us next week on Roundtable.

A "Now Hiring!" banner outside the Ralphs supermarket in Chula Vista, Calif., March 18, 2022.
Alexander Nguyen
A "Now Hiring!" banner outside the Ralphs supermarket in Chula Vista, Calif., March 18, 2022.
Union vote could bring the first supermarket strike to the area since 2003, San Diego's new community choice energy program prepares for a big expansion, and immigration activists call for an end to asylum measures at the border.

KPBS reporter Matt Hoffman hosts a discussion on stories in the news this week. Guests include KPBS North County multimedia producer Alexander Nguyen on the strike authorization vote by the union representing thousands of grocery store workers. KPBS metro reporter Andrew Bowen tells us about a major expansion to San Diego Community Power, which would allow SDG&E customers to buy more of their energy from renewable sources. KPBS investigative border reporter Gustavo Solis explains how immigration activists are renewing calls for the end of Title 42, a public health order that has been used to drastically limit asylum entries to the U.S. over the past two years.