Putting the pressure on UNFI

January 24, 2013

Steve Leigh reports on the next steps for striking workers at United Natural Foods Inc.

HUNDREDS OF supporters of Teamsters Local 117 gathered January 19 in Tukwila, Wash., to support the strike and ongoing campaign against United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI).

The company permanently replaced 72 workers in Auburn, Wash., in violation of federal labor law on December 13, the day that more than 160 workers were returning to work after a three-day unfair labor practices strike. UNFI brought in more than $5 billion in revenue in 2012 and is the leading distributor of natural and organic food products in North America.

The union has filed over 50 unfair labor practice charges against UNFI for its failure to bargain, harassment of union supporters, reassignment of work to nonunion facilities and other violations. The workers also want a wage increase to bring them closer to the industry standard. They are now 25 percent behind other grocery workers in the area.

The latest phase of the struggle began in early January after the company agreed during federal mediation to make a good-faith contract proposal to end the strike. But when company negotiators came to the table, their offer failed to resolve any of the outstanding issues. The contract proposal contained no improvements in health care or pensions compared to its previous offer while the company demanded that the union drop all of its unfair labor practices charges.

UNFI strikers marching on the picket line
UNFI strikers marching on the picket line

To top it off, the company still refused to reinstate 15 of the 72 workers that they illegally fired, which is what provoked the strike in the first place. By an overwhelming vote, the strikers decided to stay on the picket line to defend their terminated co-workers.

Tracy Thompson, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 117, said the company was just seeking to punish the workers and extract its "pound of flesh."

Since it is now clear that the company is not serious about reaching a settlement, the Teamsters are organizing a national campaign against UNFI. From coast to coast, Teamsters and their supporters will be leafleting stores of supermarket giant Whole Foods, which is UNFI's largest customer. So far, Whole Foods insist that it would like to remain "neutral" in UNFI's labor dispute.

But the union points out that the supermarket chain is supporting UNFI by not stopping or reducing its purchases. Whole Foods proved the Teamsters' point by filing a legal claim accusing the union of launching a "secondary boycott" because of its leafleting campaign--even though the union has not called for a boycott of the store. Secondary boycotts are illegal under the restrictive provisions of U.S. labor law, which is why the Teamsters aren't calling for a boycott of Whole Foods, only UNFI products sold there.

The union is demanding that Whole Foods pressure UNFI to settle the strike on fair terms and is asking customers to pressure Whole Foods to support a fair settlement at UNFI.

BESIDES THE leafleting campaign and the consumer boycott of UNFI products around the country, the Teamsters are looking into the possibility of a corporate campaign against UNFI, studying its financing and connections with other corporations. So far, no plans have been announced to spread the strike to other UNFI facilities. Nor has there been any discussion of systematizing the solidarity that workers have shown at the grocery stores by following UNFI trucks with pickets to prevent deliveries.

Other organizations participating in the rally included Teamsters Local 174, United Food and Commercial Workers, UNITE HERE, Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of Teachers, United Students Against Sweatshops, Office and Professional Employees International Union, Jobs with Justice, the musicians' union, Puget Sound Sage and several co-ops.

Speakers at the rally stressed that the Auburn strike is only one example of UNFI's union-busting antics. For example, there are allegations that UNFI management made death threats against workers trying to organize a union in Southern California, according to Thompson. The union has already filed 10 unfair labor practice charges against UNFI there.

"UNFI has shown its true stripes," said Thompson. "Let everyone know that UNFI doesn't care about its 'core values.' It only cares about greed!" A leader of Teamsters Local 174 agreed, calling UNFI "an evil company."

Over the years, the treatment of workers by UNFI has become worse, not better. According to Robert, a worker with 13 years of experience at UNFI:

They cared about us more when I started than they do now. They used to give us lunches a couple times a month. Every three months, they have a 10 percent jump in profit, but all they want to do is take things away from us. They are eating up any raises with increased medical expenses. They tried to buy their way out of the unfair labor practice charges--for only $300! And it would have taken 90 days to even get that. They broke the law 51 times--and we can't let them get away with that.

"They don't care about their employees," said Dottie, a driver, agreeing with Robert. "The company's business has grown, and with the growth, it's become more cutthroat. It's really sad that they've gone this way. But I'm very proud of the people I work with. This will make us stronger when we get back to work!"

James, a fired warehouse worker, echoed Dottie's point. "When I got hurt on the job, it took the company three months to put through the paperwork to pay my bills," explained James. "They could have paid me right away."

SPEAKER AFTER speaker, especially the fired workers, thanked their co-workers for standing up for them. They also praised their supporters in the community. The rally itself collected more than $1,000 for the strikers' hardship fund. Customers at Central Co-op raised more than $3,000 in only a couple weeks when the workers there put out collection cans on the check stands. They presented this to the union at the rally.

The response of co-ops in the area has varied. Some have issued statements in support of the strikers, some have postponed UNFI deliveries, and others are actually labeling UNFI-produced products in their stores so customers can boycott them. In some cases, the support came quickly; in others, more organizing was needed. But all the co-ops have been more supportive of the strikers than Whole Foods has, in spite of pressure on the co-ops from UNFI.

The union is trying to organize more support from the co-ops while recognizing that this puts them in a difficult position because there are few other ready sources of these products for the co-ops.

The launching of a national campaign by the Teamsters against UNFI is a welcome step forward in the strike. All supporters of labor rights across the U.S. should join the Teamsters in leafleting at Whole Foods and boycotting UNFI brands. Supporters in the Seattle area should also join the picket lines at UNFI in Auburn.

Given its size and vicious anti-union record, the maximum amount of solidarity with the strike will be necessary to defeat UNFI. An extended consumer boycott will put pressure on UNFI, but more direct workplace solidarity will most probably be needed to win a good contract at UNFI.

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