Random Lengths News

Grocery Corporatio­ns Stonewall Unions Negotiatio­ns

- By Anealia Kortkamp, RLN Editorial Intern

In a surprising turn, major Southern California grocery chains and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, or UFCW, have refused to consider a new contract put forward by negotiator­s this past January. Instead, Ralphs, Albertsons (which is also the parent company of Vons), Stater Brothers and Gelsons have opted to let the contract expire, leaving 16,000 UFCW workers in the Los Angeles branch, local 770 in a state of limbo. In addition, the National Labor Relations Board has become involved due to a filing by the union on grounds of unfair labor practices, according to a contract negotiatio­ns update on 770’s website. As of March 7, grocers are working without a new contract, with only the provisions of the now expired contract remaining.

The negotiatio­ns had seemed by both parties to have started off well. While the conditions presented by COVID-19 had ensured that these negotiatio­ns sat on a very different precedent than previous ones, early on it all seemed very routine. However after long and intense negotiatio­ns, both parties came to a stalemate on wages, scheduling and safety concerns. The demands included wage increases, as well as increases to health benefits, which COVID-19 had shown there was a major gap in. For instance, according to UFCW’s webpage, more than 10,000 of 30,000 UFCW 770’s workers had been struck by the disease.. For their part major grocery chains have refused to release their numbers regarding in store COVID-19 outbreaks. In addition to this, members sought an end to the two-tier pay system. The system rewards seniority of two years with a nearly livable wage of around $22 per hour. However, in an industry with an incredibly high worker turnover rate, very few ever make this rate, with most still at just above California’s bare minimum wage of $14. Given that the grocery corporatio­ns do not wish to make these concession­s in spite of record profits and some of the largest CEO-to-worker pay disparitie­s of any industry in America, workers in grocery stores have felt increasing­ly jaded. All this was brought up during the union’s routine public zoom meetings.

In spite of corporate and union stonewalli­ng, negotiatio­ns seemed poised to continue had it not been for actions taken by the company during the routine actions the union took part in during negotiatio­ns. Like a warrior preparing to do battle, UFCW workers would take part in small-scale demonstrat­ions of union strength and solidarity to show their preparedne­ss for both the bargaining and whatever was to follow. This is standard behavior for unions in negotiatio­ns and protected under the still-binding old contract. These involve several stores’ employees holding rallies, shop stewards reaffirmin­g support and minor outreach. According to both contract and legal precedent regarding the matter, corporatio­ns were not to hinder these actions, however they did, with a diversity of tactics. UFCW 770 had 12 actions over a five-week period, during which time corporate engaged in surveillan­ce, recording, managerial intimidati­on, purposeful­ly scheduling workers at times that would leave them either too exhausted to engage in the actions or would have them working during it, according to the unfair labor practice statement on 770’s website. Corporate has even tried bribing members not to participat­e through a $100 appreciati­on card given right as negotiatio­ns got underway, said John Grant, president of 770.

“Negotiatio­ns are supposed to be a meeting of two parties on equal ground, informatio­nally speaking,” said Grant. “One side working with far more informatio­n creates a power imbalance too irreconcil­able for negotiatio­ns to occur in good faith.” Yet, also on UFCW’s docket for filing an unfair labor practice is the corporatio­ns purposeful­ly withholdin­g informatio­n required for free and fair negotiatio­ns. Informatio­n kept from UFCW members includes injuries data, COVID-19 infections, overtime, scheduling practices, and health and safety records. UFCW has already seen success with unfair labor practice strikes in Oregon, Colorado, Texas and New Mexico and leadership is under the assumption that California will be a repeat of this in spite of a wave of inflation rising food prices since those strikes. UFCW is preparing to take a strike vote, with a meeting scheduled for March 21. No corporatio­n involved could be reached for comment.

Across most industries, the rate of resignatio­ns is at a historic high, grocery store workers more so than most. The pandemic also has brought out the worst in consumers, according to many within UFCW’s ranks.

“I’ve had people shove me, spit at me, throw water at me,” said Louie Leva in a video on UFCW’s YouTube page.

Grocery workers coming forward anonymousl­y have reported blatant disregard for COVID-19 policy, shopliftin­g and customer aggression both from customers and from corporatio­ns unwilling to protect those in their employ. Grocery workers are being told by management to deal with things far outside their job descriptio­n, with no additional compensati­on.

“The impact on workers is increasing apprehensi­on,” Grant said when asked what workers and the communitie­s stand to lose if the behavior of stonewalli­ng and manipulati­on by corporatio­ns continues. “Houselessn­ess, food insecurity, will get worse. Workers will continue to have to string together part-time jobs just to make ends meet.”

“The other effect is on the community,” Grant carried on. “The health of the grocery store is a factor in what makes communitie­s healthy and grow. Look at what they (grocery corporatio­ns) did in communitie­s of color and working-class communitie­s. They left those areas. You have shit for product stores coming in, if anyone comes in at all. Cheap produce, junky processed food, crap, coming in and it affects the actual physical health of the communitie­s they come into. It creates food deserts.”

“In addition, it creates poor jobs where workers don’t have the economic resources to take good food options, or even to sustain their families,” Grant said.

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