Co-op or Co-orp in Seattle?

April 11, 2011

Jorge Torres, an elected member of the union negotiating team at Central Co-op in Seattle, reports on how workers built a solidarity campaign.

WORKERS AT Seattle's Central Co-op voted 56-0 to reject management's contract offer March 2 following a six-month contract campaign that built union solidarity from the ground up.

The workers, represented by United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 21, rejected management's supposed "last, best, and final" offer in a vote that turned out an unprecedented 84 percent of the workers at the Seattle natural foods store. The outcome demonstrates the deep dissatisfaction with the claims of the store's general manager of what can be afforded for workers in the next contract.

"A slap in the face." "Insulting." "Unacceptable."--these are some of the terms workers used to describe management's offer.

The worker's primary issue with management's proposal was its paltry wage increase. Management proposed a base wage increase of 25 cents an hour for 2010 (retroactive to November 1); 30 cents for year 2011, and 25 cents for the third year--with an extra nickel in 2012 if "the end of year 2011 net profit exceeds the budgeted net profit goal by 0.25 percent."

A Central Co-op store in Seattle
A Central Co-op store in Seattle

But the issues at Central Co-op go beyond wages. Management's proposal would continue to push future increases in health care costs onto the workers, repeating what happened two summers ago when management exploited a loophole in the contract to force a $200 deductible, and a higher premium and co-pay.

Moreover, management is proposing to only excuse absences of four days or more when workers can produce a doctor's note. But under management's offer, absences of three days or less that are due to sickness could lead to disciplinary action. Currently, a note from a licensed health practitioner excuses absences from day one.

Management has refused to discuss increasing paid time-off hours, the third most important issue for staff. Also, for the third round of contract negotiations in a row, management is proposing to increase a worker's trial period from 60 days to 90 days. This would leave new workers unprotected by the union contract.

In addition, management is refusing the union's request to allow substitute workers into the union. By contrast, management's proposal could keep subs working without union protection indefinitely, and allow management to use those workers to fill vacated union positions.

MANAGEMENT'S HARD-LINE stance led workers to ask whether the "Co-op" should really be called a "Co-orp." But, unfortunately, management's stance is not a departure from bargaining over the years. Management's previous lawyer, M. Edward Taylor of Sebris Busto James law firm, was long criticized by workers and shoppers alike for having led a union decertification campaign against another UFCW local. Taylor was finally fired after years of pressure.

The store's new lawyer, Ronald J. Knox of Garvey Schubert Barer Law, is basing negotiating strategy on the recently bargained Allied Grocery contract with UFCW, which covers workers at Safeway, QFC, Fred Meyer and Albertson's stores throughout the Puget Sound area. Though Central Co-op signs a contract independent of the Allied contract, Allied bargaining sets the standard for all other grocery contracts.

Unfortunately, Local 21 wasn't able to bargain more than a 25 cents per hour base wage increase for journey workers for only two years of a three-year contract. This negatively affects bargaining for all the independent grocery contracts. But workers at Central Co-op know they can do better.

Three years ago, while the store was still in deep debt, management agreed to a base wage increase of 50 cents an hour in most cases, and nearly $1 in the case of journey workers, for each year of the three-year contract. The store has since seen continuous record-breaking sales and will be completely debt-free as of September. Labor creates all wealth, and workers know that Central Co-op has succeeded in shedding its $3 million debt over the last decade through their work.

In addition, workers see a contradiction between management's pay offer and its plans for expansion. Central Co-op is buying new refrigeration units, and the general manager is talking about a renting a house to serve as administrative offices. Management is also gearing up to open a second store a few years down the road.

Yet all the while, management's attorney continues to claim that "money is tight." Undoubtedly, workers appreciate having better equipment to work with. But they agree that they should be shown more appreciation than the coolers.

It was these issues, among a few others, that brought the overwhelming majority of Central Co-op workers out to vote "no." But if it was only anger at a bad offer from management that turns out "no" votes, then the Allied contract bargaining could have had very different results.

The experience at Central Co-op highlights the fact that the two decisive factors in bargaining are leadership and communication. Contract negotiations at Central Co-op are run by direct democracy, through language that was written into the 2004 contract. The bargaining team is made up of three unpaid positions chosen directly from the shop floor through election, with the right by staff to hold a recall vote of the team at any time.

The team is expected to regularly update staff and maintain communication throughout negotiations. From the beginning, the negotiating team has not only surveyed staff opinions, but also tried to raise expectations by reminding workers of the store's economic health. The negotiating team was elected a year ago, and has since set up over 20 meetings for workers to discuss negotiations. It also created an announcement listserve for the team to send out regular updates.

In the run-up to the vote, the bargaining team set up and announced five different five-hour worker meetings, made reminder calls over the weekend and throughout the day of the vote, and created and distributed a "Top 10 Reasons to Vote 'No'" handout.

Now the staff is concerned with management's effort to hold up negotiations. There were only four sessions in as many months before management's "final" offer, and now they are claiming they won't be available until May. Workers are getting restless for negotiations to close.

But it is worth having some historical context. Negotiations in 2002 culminated in a strike authorization vote. Negotiations in 2004 took place over the better part of a year and involved 30 bargaining sessions. Negotiations in 2007 were less contentious, but health care benefits were revisited shortly afterward, and management rolled back benefits.

It may take another show of force like the "no" vote to demonstrate to management that we deserve our fair share--and we want it now.

Darrin Hoop contributed to this article.

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