Working In These Times
After Half-Decade Struggle, Rite Aid Workers Form Union at Giant Distribution Center
Rite Aid workers at the company's massive Southwest Distribution Center in Lancaster, Calif., declared victory on May 1 in their five-year effort to form a union and improve working conditions.
Workers signed a three-year tentative contract with management—subject to a May 12 membership ratification vote—that will improve conditions at the million-square-foot facility in California's high desert by guaranteeing:
- Health insurance rates that are fair for both individual workers and their families
- Job security provisions to prevent work from being sub-contracted
- A worker voice in production standards and ability to challenge unfair standards
- Protection against intense summer heat and winter cold, using innovative indoor-temperature standards
- A fair and impartial process for resolving disputes
- Wage increases in each of the next 3 years.
"We're excited about winning this victory, even if it took longer than it should have," said Carlos "Chico" Rubio, a 10-year warehouse worker who helped negotiate the union contract with a team of eight co-workers.
Employees decided to form their union in March of 2006 after contacting the International Longshore and Warehouse Workers Union (ILWU). Within months, Local 26 President Luisa Gratz was helping workers address problems with indoor heat and production standards.
Unfortunately, Rite Aid began aggressively interfering with the workers' freedom to organize:
- Management retained an expensive team of notorious union-busting consultants.
- The company threatened and fired workers for supporting the union
- Illegal layoffs were imposed without consulting workers and their new union.
- The company engaged in "surface bargaining" that delayed meaningful negotiations for a year.
Responding to these challenges, Rite Aid workers stayed united and helped their union lead a sophisticated campaign that included:
- Opening a direct line of communication with company shareholders and board members
- Actively participating in the company's annual shareholder meetings in New York City and Harrisburg, Penn.
- Forming a nationwide network of Rite Aid workers and unions that including UFCW, SEIU, and Teamsters, who shared information and coordinated actions,
- Building a powerful national coalition with United Students Against Sweatshops and Jobs with Justice.
- Launching a "pinpoint" boycott campaign at two Rite Aid stores in San Pedro, Calif., on April 1, 2011.
"Rite Aid made this process much more difficult on workers and families than it needed to," said ILWU International Vice President Ray Familathe, who helped workers reach their May 1 settlement.
Rand Wilson is an AFL-CIO Communication Coordinator based in Boston, Mass., who has been directly involved with the Rite Aid' workers' campaign.