Scrooge on steroids at UNFI

December 18, 2012

Steve Leigh reports on a struggle against union-busting by Washington Teamsters.

LESS THAN two weeks before Christmas, United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI) has fired 72 workers at its Auburn, Wash., distribution center.

The supposed "crime" of these workers was to go on strike against low wages and poor working conditions. The workers, represented by Teamsters Local 117, struck on December 10 after months of stalled negotiations.

When the company threatened to replace the strikers, workers made an unconditional offer to return to work. UNFI agreed, but when the workers tried to return, they were met by security guards--72 out of a total of 163 had been fired. In the face of this mass firing, all the workers stayed together in solidarity and went back out on strike on December 13.

Workers and the union have now cited 50 unfair labor practice violations by UNFI. Under federal law, workers on an unfair labor practice strike cannot be permanently replaced by their employer.

"UNFI is refusing to uphold its side of the agreement," said Robert Jurey, a 13-year warehouse worker with UNFI, on the Local 117 website. "We committed to take down the picket lines, and UNFI pledged to accept our offer to return to work. Now they are telling us that 72 workers are out of a job right before the holidays. It's a disgrace."

Members of Teamsters Local 117 walk the picket line at United Natural Foods Inc.
Members of Teamsters Local 117 walk the picket line at United Natural Foods Inc.

In a press release, Tracey A. Thompson, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 117, stated, "UNFI misrepresented its position...The company's action to replace its employees is retaliatory, unlawful and frankly despicable."

UNFI is a major international food distributor, operating in the U.S. and Canada. It is the largest natural food distributor in the U.S., servicing 27,000 retail customers with 12 natural products stores in Florida. It has grown rapidly with the rise of the natural foods market and made record profits last year.

Only some of UNFI's distribution centers are unionized. When the union in Washington demanded that UNFI meet industry wage standards, the company claimed it was not in the grocery industry, even though it mainly supplies grocery stores. Instead, it claims to be in the "natural foods industry," where wages are lower.

But UNFI is a profitable multinational that could easily afford the workers' demand to be paid comparable to other grocery workers. Currently, workers at UNFI are now paid, on average, 25 percent less than grocery industry standards. In addition to lower wages, workers burdened with a bad medical plan and no pensions. But what triggered the strike were a series of unfair labor practices by the company.

Before the strike, the company reportedly intimidated workers, unilaterally moved bargaining unit work out of the distribution center and made changes in working conditions without consulting the union. According to the union, the company has refused to negotiate over mandatory bargaining subjects, in addition to carrying out surveillance against workers and engaging in retaliation for union activity.

WHAT MAKES this holiday season sneak attack even more outrageous is management's flagrant disregard of labor law. Under the National Labor Relations Act, workers striking over unfair labor practices cannot be permanently replaced. The problem, however, is that the penalties under the law are so small that they do not always deter illegal action.

Back pay to workers unfairly fired, for example, only applies if they are not on strike, and to the extent they are not receiving other income. Even if the company finally loses in court down the road, the amount they might have to pay would be minimal.

The damages to workers, on the other hand, can be tremendous--from loss of livelihood and homes to worse. Companies with deep pockets can easily wait out the process, but it is much harder for workers.

The workers are calling UNFI's attack what it is--a blatant attempt to bust the union. When workers first struck, UNFI immediately hired replacement workers, and on December 13, it made many of them permanent. In fact, workers allege the company was bringing in and training non-union workers even before the strike.

Management claims that the company is running at full capacity this week, but workers say untrained scabs can't do their jobs effectively. It will take many more to produce the same output that union workers did. Workers say they have already seen evidence of turnover, as scabs are unable to meet union production standards. Missed orders and mistakes are already on the rise.

The workers are standing united. So far, only three union drivers have crossed the line. The bulk of strikers who work inside the distribution center have remained solid for the strike--even though many could have taken their jobs back if they . crossed the line. The majority of workers are striking to defend the 72 workers " permanently replaced". Even though many could have taken their jobs back if they let the 72 workers be fired. "We had to stand up for everyone," said striker Maurice Hicks.

Strikers are disgusted by the behavior of management. As Hicks said, "There is nothing natural in how they treat their employees. It's all about greed. After all the hard work we put in, after all our years of service, they treat us like this."

Workers are receiving solidarity from union members and other workers. Passing cars honk in support and people have come out to walk the picket line with the strikers. The union is talking to other unions about solidarity action they can take to support the strike.

UNFI COULD be vulnerable to popular outrage since its image is based on healthy foods, decency to its workers and protection of the environment.

The company even claims, on its website, to care about its workers, who they call "associates." It counts among its goals "[t]o create a nurturing work environment for our associates by acknowledging the value of each person's contribution to our company, entrusting them with responsibility, treating them with respect, facilitating personal and professional development, and by providing competitive, merit-based compensation and benefits."

Apparently a "nurturing" work environment doesn't mean paying enough to adequately nurture a family or provide decent medical care or a pension.

In fact, UNFI's real vision is revealed in the "To our shareholders" section of the website, which promises: "[t]o exceed the expectations of our shareholders by delivering commendable returns on their investments, and by being an enduring, successful and profitable company."

The labor movement and its supporters need to give this strike more solidarity. Supporters should walk the picket lines and demand that stores they shop in not carry UNFI-distributed products. Unions at other UNFI facilities and in stores that carry UNFI products should use whatever leverage they can to push the company to negotiate seriously and stop its union-busting.

If UNFI gets away with this illegal and outrageous attempt to bust the Teamsters in one distribution center, what is to stop them from trying the same thing at other union facilities? And what is to stop other distribution companies from following UNFI's lead?

Labor supporters everywhere should expose UNFI's false image as a responsible corporation--and support the striking Teamsters.

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