U.S. Workers Fly 4,000 Miles To Confront Dutch Bosses

Bruce Vail

George Miles and Shaquana Battle, grocery workers from Richmond, Va., attend an April 17 Ahold shareholders' meeting in Amsterdam to speak out for union rights. (iHold Campaign)

A pair of intre­pid food work­ers from Rich­mond, Va., turned glob­al­iza­tion on its head this week. They trav­eled to one of the cen­ters of Euro­pean finance to con­front their super­mar­ket’s for­eign own­ers on issues of work­ers’ rights.

Shaqua­na Bat­tle and George Miles took time off from their jobs at Vir­ginia-based Martin’s Food stores to attend the annu­al share­hold­ers’ meet­ing of Roy­al Ahold NV, a huge mul­ti-nation­al gro­cery retail­er head­quar­tered in the Dutch cap­i­tal of Ams­ter­dam. Ahold is the 8th-largest food retail­er in the Unit­ed States and, in addi­tion to Mar­t­in’s, owns Stop & Shop, Pea­pod and Giant Food.

On Wednes­day, Bat­tle, Miles and oth­er labor activists spoke out from the floor of the pub­lic share­hold­ers meet­ing, chal­leng­ing Ahold cor­po­rate boss Dick Boer and oth­er own­ers to respect the col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights of work­ers in Rich­mond and else­where (see a web­cast video of the meet­ing here).

The work­ers say they were met with denial and evasion.

“[The own­ers] respond­ed in a very indi­rect way,” says Bat­tle, a five-year vet­er­an of the com­pa­ny. They nev­er answered my ques­tions direct­ly – it’s kind of upset­ting in that way – but they know we are here, and that we are not going away till we get a union.”

Bat­tle is a leader in a cam­paign by the Unit­ed Food & Com­mer­cial Work­ers (UFCW) to orga­nize gro­cery work­ers at Martin’s and to push back more broad­ly against Ahold anti-union ini­tia­tives. Accord­ing to union lead­ers, Ahold is pur­su­ing expan­sion in both the U.S. and Europe at the expense of its own work­ers, often by invest­ing new mon­ey in non-union oper­a­tions at the expense of estab­lished union­ized work­places. The toll often falls heav­i­ly on the union­ized as pres­sure builds to reduce wages and ben­e­fits to the bet­ter-paid work­ers, they say.

For instance, Ahold moved last year to shut down a huge union­ized dis­tri­b­u­tion cen­ter in Jes­sup, Md. and trans­fer the work to non-union sites. UFCW Local 400, based in near­by Lan­dover, Md., was already part­ner­ing with Euro­pean unions to fight Ahold, but was unable to save the Jes­sup jobs​.In March, dis­tri­b­u­tion work­ers with the Dutch union group Fed­er­atie Ned­er­landse Vak­be­weg­ing, or FNV, went on strike against anoth­er Ahold sub­sidiary, Dutch super­mar­ket chain Albert Hei­jn over the com­pa­ny’s over use of tem­po­rary non-union work­ers. Around that time, five UFCW locals in New Eng­land protest­ed Stop & Shop, a U.S. sub­sidiary of Ahold, for recruit­ing strike­break­ers to pres­sure union­ized work­ers into health­care concessions.

For George Miles, Ahold’s glob­al­ized antipa­thy to labor has tak­en the form of an anti-union drum­beat from his boss­es in Rich­mond. What we want­ed was to be able to talk to work­ers in the stores” about join­ing Local 400, he says. They’ve denied us the right to do that.”

At the same time, Miles, says, he and his cowork­ers received let­ters from the com­pa­ny at their homes argu­ing against form­ing a union. The com­pa­ny feels that we don’t need a union … they tell us that the union just wants to take our mon­ey. Well, it’s just a lie,” says Miles, who was a union mem­ber at a pre­vi­ous job in a ship­yard. I know what a union is, and what a union does, so I don’t need these guys to tell me.”

Miles esti­mates that at least half of his cowork­ers would join the union if giv­en a chance.

Though the Amer­i­can work­ers got a cool recep­tion from the Dutch investors at the Wednes­day meet­ing, Miles says, they did have some sup­port from union­ists in the room. Accom­pa­ny­ing the Vir­ginia work­ers to Ams­ter­dam was Aaron Bren­ner, senior cap­i­tal mar­kets ana­lyst for UFCW, which rep­re­sents a total of about 70,000 U.S. employ­ees of Ahold sub­sidiaries. Bren­ner spoke up in sup­port of the work­ers, as did FNV rep­re­sen­ta­tives. In addi­tion, sup­port came from Giuseppe van der Helm of the Dutch Asso­ci­a­tion of Investors for Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment, a local share­hold­er activist group inter­est­ed in social and envi­ron­men­tal issues. Also on hand from the U.S. labor move­ment was Lucas Ben­itez of the Coali­tion of Immokolee Work­ers, the Flori­da-based group that is cam­paign­ing to get large cor­po­ra­tions to help finance improve­ments to the pay and work­ing con­di­tions of poor farm work­ers who do the work pro­vid­ing fresh food to com­pa­nies like Ahold.

This was the third con­sec­u­tive year that UFCW and FNV have been joint­ly attend­ing the Ahold share­hold­er meet­ings, Bren­ner tells WITT. The union counts it as a pos­i­tive step that senior Ahold exec­u­tives are no longer sur­prised to see the labor activists at the meet­ings. Orga­niz­ers want Ahold to know that a multi­na­tion­al coali­tion of labor rights groups is close­ly watch­ing the com­pa­ny – and hold­ing it account­able for its employ­ment policies.

Bruce Vail is a Bal­ti­more-based free­lance writer with decades of expe­ri­ence cov­er­ing labor and busi­ness sto­ries for news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Dai­ly Labor Report, cov­er­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing issues in a wide range of indus­tries, and a mar­itime indus­try reporter and edi­tor for the Jour­nal of Com­merce, serv­ing both in the newspaper’s New York City head­quar­ters and in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. bureau.
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