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Tuesday night in Manhattan, a Rite Aid drugstore worker from California and enthusiastic supporters upstaged a corporate banquet where former First Lady Laura Bush came to honor Rite Aid CEO Mary Sammons and other executives.
Protesters held signs and banners outside and several went inside, attempting to offer Rite Aid CEO Mary Sammons a free plane ticket if she would agree to visit 600 workers at the company’s regional distribution center in Lancaster, Calif., where continuing labor violations have drawn Rite Aid into a bitter nationwide conflict. For more than two years, workers at the distribution center have been united in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union to achieve better pay and working conditions.
“Rite Aid deserves the raspberry for abusing workers and then trying to celebrate in the Big Apple,” said Christina Clausen, executive assistant to the Regional Director for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
About 30 representatives from the UFCW, Service Employees Union 1199, Teamsters Union, and International Longshore Association attended a special briefing by ILWU leaders and the protest event outside the banquet. All three unions also represent Rite Aid workers at its retail and distribution facilities.
The union leaders were joined by representatives from the New York City Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, the community-labor coalition New York Jobs with Justice and student activists from New York University.
Protesters outside the hotel met drugstore executives who arrived for the corporate banquet with large banners and flyers criticizing Rite Aid’s continuing aggressive interference with workers’ rights in Lancaster, where employees have been fired and threatened for supporting a union.
Former first lady Laura Bush disappointed workers by ignoring their request to “stand up for working families” in a letter they sent her last month. The letter noted that Rite Aid has committed dozens of unlawful acts against workers and last year agreed to settle 49 alleged violations of federal labor law. This year the company faces a new set of complaints filed by the National Labor Relations Board for similar violations of workers’ rights.
Workers at the distribution center in California decided to join the union after Rite Aid enacted policies that hurt families by requiring parents to work mandatory overtime with no notice, preventing them from picking up their children after work.
Rite Aid worker Tim Brown, who works at the Lancaster distribution center, flew out to represent his co-workers at the New York City event. “Our families in Lancaster feel disrespected because the company has been violating our rights and breaking the law,” said Brown. “We want to help Rite Aid be a better company and treating people right would be a good place to begin.”
The struggle by workers in Lancaster illustrates why working families need the Employee Free Choice Act to protect them from Rite Aid and other companies that threaten and fire workers for supporting unions, use stalling tactics to prevent workers from obtaining a first contract, and allow companies to violate existing laws with impunity. Workers in Lancaster have been trying to negotiate a first contract with Rite Aid for more than 18 months, have held more than 60 negotiating sessions with the company, and still have no contract.
Pictures from the event are available here, on the photo-sharing website Picasa.
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Rand Wilson is an organizer and chief of staff at SEIU Local 888 in Boston.