Winning by standing together

Striking Teamsters fought off a union-buster in Washington state, reports Steve Leigh.

UNFI workers on the picket linesUNFI workers on the picket lines

AFTER NINE weeks on an unfair labor practices strike, more than 160 Teamster drivers and warehouse workers at United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI) in Auburn, Wash., ratified a new contract.

The strike started December 10 over 50 unfair labor practice violations and the workers' effort to close a 25 percent wage gap compared to other grocery industry workers. When workers agreed to return to work on December 13, the company went back on a previous agreement and fired 72 warehouse workers. This forced the union to go back out on strike over the original issues--and also to save the jobs of the fired workers.

The Teamsters won a clear victory in at least two respects--the company's attempt at union-busting failed and the union won back the jobs of all the fired workers. As one striker put it, "Their primary goal was to get rid of the union. They found out it wouldn't be that easy."

The solidarity of the workers who weren't fired was crucial in winning back the 72 jobs. The Teamsters got support from local grocery workers who sometimes refused to unload UNFI trucks. Members of many other unions and community groups attended rallies or walked the picket lines and raised money for the union's hardship fund.

Plus, there was a consumer boycott of UNFI products that focused on area markets of Whole Foods, UNFI's biggest customer. In mid-January, the union announced an intensified national campaign against the health food maker, including a national consumer boycott. Several local co-ops publicly supported the workers.

As Tracey Thompson, the Secretary Treasurer of Local 117, said:

Workers at UNFI stood together courageously in difficult conditions to fight for dignity and respect. With the help of our community partners and a strong bargaining committee, workers were able to achieve a fair and just contract. Local 117 wishes to thank our many community partners for their unwavering support throughout this contract dispute.

UNFI's strike-breaking effort included bringing in workers from other facilities around the U.S. to cross the picket lines. The company hired security guards at much higher pay than the workers get, erected new fences, and put up scabs in hotels and paid for their meals. UNFI also went to court against the union over picket line behavior and alleged secondary boycott activity.

All of that cost money which could have been used to provide workers with a fair settlement, as one worker pointed out on the picket line last December:

If they don't have the money to pay fair wages, how can they pay for all this strikebreaking?...They're spending more on fighting our strike than what we asked for to start with. They just don't want to make a good offer. They can afford it!

The new agreement is five years long, up from three in the past. It includes a wage increase of 19.3 percent over the five year life of the contract--an improvement of the company's original offer of around 10 percent over three years--and a cap on medical payments by workers. The wage increase won't yet bring UNFI workers to parity with other workers in the grocery industry. The workers were able to fend off an attack on the existing employee stock ownership plan, but they still have no pension plan.

Even the negative points of the contract, however, represent an improvement over the company's last offers before and during the walkout. So by going on strike, the Teamsters definitely got a better deal.

Especially coming in the face of the all-out attack on working-class living standards, the UNFI strikers' determination and the support for their fight shows the importance of solidarity and struggle.