The Next Wave of Labor Unrest Could Be in Grocery Stores

Michael Arria September 9, 2019

Grocery shopping on new year eve at Fred Meyer on 31 December 2014. (Photo by Francis Dean/Corbis via Getty Images)

On August 24, mem­bers of Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers (UFCW) Local 555 over­whelm­ing­ly vot­ed to autho­rize a strike for 20,000 gro­cery employ­ees at Safe­way, Albert­sons, QFC and Fred Mey­er loca­tions in the Pacif­ic North­west. That move came rough­ly two months after mem­bers of the union vot­ed to autho­rize a strike for about 46,000 gro­cery employ­ees in south­ern and cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia, and four months after the union declared vic­to­ry in New Eng­land fol­low­ing a suc­cess­ful 11-day strike by Stop & Shop workers.

The work­ers in Cal­i­for­nia have report­ed­ly reached a ten­ta­tive deal that could avert a strike, but whether or not union mem­bers vote to rat­i­fy the agree­ment won’t be known until lat­er this week.

Gro­cery work­ers in the Pacif­ic North­west are demand­ing high­er wages and an end to the gen­der pay gap that per­me­ates their stores. They have estab­lished proof for the lat­ter, com­mis­sion­ing a third-par­ty group to pro­duce a report on the issue. The research group Olympic Ana­lyt­ics looked at the data on hourly wage, gen­der, age, years of Fred Mey­er expe­ri­ence, and job title for 1,919 Fred Mey­er work­ers employed in the area. It found that women are almost twice as like­ly to be giv­en lead posi­tions, but make about an aver­age of $1.68 less than their male coun­ter­parts at those posi­tions. In 2018, near­ly 80% of the store’s bak­ery employ­ees were women, while the high­er-pay­ing pro­duce depart­ment was male-dom­i­nat­ed. The gap between these two depart­ments has bare­ly shift­ed over the last 81 years: The pay gap between the two depart­ments was 27.3% in 1937 and had only dropped to 21.5% by 2018.

Jane Thomp­son has been work­ing at a Fred Mey­er store in Bend, Ore­gon for 18 years, and has been in the Seafood Depart­ment for 12 of them. She hopes the strike autho­riza­tion vote will lead to bet­ter pay for her and her co-work­ers. The com­pa­ny keeps tak­ing more and more away from us,” she told In These Times. Accord­ing to the U.S. Cen­sus, the pop­u­la­tion of Bend increased by almost 30% between 2010 and 2018. While the boom has meant more cus­tomers, Thomp­son said it hasn’t meant addi­tion­al hires or high­er pay. I’m doing the job of two peo­ple now,” said Thompson.

Ann Poff is a mem­ber of the union’s bar­gain­ing com­mit­tee and has worked as a deli clerk at Safe­way for near­ly 22 years. She cur­rent­ly makes $1.85 above min­i­mum wage, but the min­i­mum wage is set to increase in Ore­gon over the next few years. This means that she’ll make just $1.45 above min­i­mum wage for two years, before mak­ing just 75 cents above it in the year after that. The min­i­mum wage is going up, but our wages are going down,” she rea­soned. Accord­ing to Poff, when she once asked to be trans­ferred to a dif­fer­ent posi­tion, her request was denied despite hav­ing spent over 20 years on the job. A male co-work­er with less than a year of expe­ri­ence was allowed to switch to the posi­tion instead, she said.

At the last bar­gain­ing meet­ing, the employ­ers actu­al­ly offered a pro­pos­al that inex­plic­a­bly paid many depart­ments less than min­i­mum wage by the year 2022. When con­front­ed about this fact, man­age­ment offered a mere dime over the state’s min­i­mum wage. Fred Meyer/​Kroger seem to be odd­ly com­fort­able being known as the gro­cer who prof­its off the deval­u­a­tion of their workers…specifically women,” said the union in a statement.

Local 555’s pres­i­dent has indi­cat­ed that there is a high like­li­hood that we will see an eco­nom­ic action tak­en against stores in the near future” and has promised to release details before Sep­tem­ber 10. Mean­while, Cal­i­for­nia gro­cery work­ers at Ralphs, Albert­sons, Vons and Pavil­ions stores have been work­ing with­out a con­tract since March and have already vot­ed to autho­rize a strike. On Sep­tem­ber 8, it was announced that the union and the employ­ers had reached a ten­ta­tive deal, but mem­bers have yet to vote on it and no details have been released.

This isn’t the first labor fight that has gripped the gro­cery indus­try this year. In April, rough­ly 31,000 employ­ees at the New Eng­land gro­cery chain Stop & Shop went on strike at over 240 stores. The work­ers, who were also rep­re­sent­ed by the UFCW, were fight­ing against attacks on their pen­sions, ris­ing health­care costs, and the poten­tial elim­i­na­tion of cer­tain over­time pay. After strik­ing for 11 days, the union agreed to a new con­tract and announced that the com­pa­ny had met their major demands. Ahold Del­haize, Stop & Shop’s par­ent com­pa­ny, says that the strike cost them $345 million.

That num­ber might be fright­en­ing for the gro­cery employ­ers cur­rent­ly fac­ing poten­tial strikes, but it’s also caught the eye of right-wing, anti-labor forces. The Nation­al Right to Work Legal Defense Foun­da­tion aims to dam­age orga­nized labor by fight­ing com­pul­so­ry union mem­ber­ship in courts. Most notably, it was one of the groups that rep­re­sent­ed child sup­port spe­cial­ist Mark Janus, who ulti­mate­ly achieved a mas­sive vic­to­ry for the polit­i­cal right at the Supreme Court. The group has filed two unfair labor prac­tice charges against Stop & Shop for an employ­ee named Matthew Cof­fey who opposed the strike.

Sam Hugh­es is a social media coor­di­na­tor at UFCW and a for­mer deli work­er at Fred Mey­er. Hugh­es, who prefers they” pro­nouns, told In These Times that they had to work addi­tion­al jobs because they often couldn’t get enough hours from the store. I found myself being paid low wages on food stamps, cut­ting deals with my land­lord just to afford below-mar­ket rent,” said Hugh­es. Hugh­es also said the strike autho­riza­tion vote was a way to fight against the dehu­man­iza­tion of work­ers,” and that relat­ed labor vic­to­ries through­out the coun­try under­scored an impor­tant point: There’s a lot more of us than there are of them.”

Michael Arria is the U.S. cor­re­spon­dent for Mon­doweiss. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @michaelarria.
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