Before Howard Shapiro opened his Food Town supermarket in Silver Spring two months ago, he sat in front of the boarded-up building at a card table with a hand-printed sign inviting people to apply for the 65 jobs in his store.
The applicants--about 3,000 so far--came in droves, Shapiro said, to vie for the jobs that could take them out of the ranks of the jobless and place them on steady, although not particularly impressive, wages of $4 an hour.
Shapiro, who owns only this one store, said he thought he was giving people a chance. But others, who remembered that people who worked there when it was one of the now-defunct Pantry Pride supermarkets earned about $6.50 an hour, said they thought Howard Shapiro was simply taking advantage of people who could find jobs nowhere else during a time of recession.
And last Thursday, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents some 27,000 supermarket employes in the Washington area, sent pickets to Shapiro's Food Town with fliers charging that he pays lower than union wages, is scrimping on employment benefits and intimidating his workers to prevent them from openly campaigning for union representation.
"I'm paying my people about as much as I can and still stay in business," said Shapiro, 35, who lives in Baltimore. "My employes tell me the wages they are getting are acceptable and that they don't need a union."
But Don Dickerson, a representative of UFCW's Local 400, said he has heard a different story from employes. "At least a dozen of the employes in there have signed cards saying they want a union," said Dickerson, who carried a placard yesterday urging shoppers not to patronize Shapiro's Food Town at 8540 Piney Branch Rd., Silver Spring.
Tony Rosckraus, Shapiro's grocery manager, said he worked 13 years for Pantry Pride. "I was a strong member of Local 400," he said. "But when I was out of work for four months, they didn't do a thing for me. They didn't help me then. And I don't need a union now."
Another employe, Keenan Williams who is employed as a grocery clerk, said he did sign a union card recently. "But now I'm sorry I signed because customers come in and tell me what the guys on the picket line are saying about the store and it's mostly lies," he said.
Shapiro, whose father operated a small grocery in Baltimore, said he and his two younger brothers bought the 19,000-square-foot building for $200,000 last August at a New York auction of 54 Pantry Pride stores that closed last year after the supermarket chain went bankrupt. He said a grocery distributor gave him another $200,000 line of credit at an interest rate 2 percent above the prime rate and he was in business.
Shapiro's Food Town was doing a brisk business yesterday as customers walked between picketers--none of whom were employes of the store--to get inside.
Kathleen Kelly, a Catholic University student in social work, read the flier as she entered the store. "It says here they pay their employes less than union wages," she said. "On principle, I would not shop here." She turned and left.
Eunice Lyons, who said she has lived near the store for 20 years and considers it a needed convenience, shopped for her groceries as usual. "The store definitely should pay fair wages," she said. "But right now, everybody's over a barrel and he might be doing about as much as he can."
If he is to keep the prices of his store competitive with the grocery chains, including the nearby Giant Food store, Shapiro said he can pay no more than he now does. He said he pays cashiers a starting salary of $4 an hour. Dickerson said cashiers in the union can earn a starting salary of $6.40 an hour. Department managers in the union earn about $440 a week, while Shapiro pays only $350 a week.
"I don't have a big staff of executives," Shapiro said. "I run this store myself. I'm here seven days a week. My two brothers and I mortgaged everything we owned to get started. We opened with used checkout stands, shelving that we pieced together. We painted the store ourselves. We're held together here with paper clips and rubber bands.
"If I don't make it with this store, me and my 65 employes will be out on the street, out of work. None of us will have wages," Shapiro said.
But Dickerson said the union's goal is not to shut down Shapiro's Food Town. "If the store closed, that wouldn't benefit anyone," Dickerson said. "This is just an informational picket line designed to let the public know that this man does not pay union wages." He said Shapiro would not be expected to pay the $8 an hour paid to cashiers by the large chains, but the $6.50 an hour paid by smaller supermarket operations such as Jumbo Foods.