At UFCW, A Reform Movement Rises
Can essential workers follow auto workers and revolutionize their union?
LAS VEGAS — It was 7:30 on a Monday morning on the Las Vegas Strip, early enough to stand outside without sunscreen. A group of people — first a trickle, then dozens — wearing matching blue T-shirts that read “Organizing & Bargaining & The Right to Strike & A Voice in Our Union,” flooded the patio of the Mirage Resort & Casino pool, overwhelming the early morning smokers who had sought refuge there. This group was smiling, energized, far too wholesome for their garish surroundings. Like a team of underdogs before a critical game, they seethed with nervous excitement.
These were the reformers. This was the scrappy little mob that had assembled at the convention of one of the biggest unions in America to try to carry the heavy burden of union democracy up a very steep hill. They were a minority inside the Mirage convention ballroom, but they felt buoyed by a million essential workers who desperately need a champion.
One of those essential workers is Naomi Oligario. She is as firmly rooted as it is possible to be. She lives in the same house she grew up in — in Port Orchard, Wash., a town just west of Seattle. At 15, she got a job working at Safeway. Thirty-eight years later, she is still working at the same Safeway. The entire time, the store has been unionized with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the biggest union in the grocery industry. When Oligario, a mother of four, began having children, she became intensely conscious of the strength of her union health insurance. Her third child had a difficult birth, but the $100,000 bill from the intensive care unit was fully covered. “That’s when I realized, hey, this is important stuff,” Oligario says. “Heck yeah, let’s fight for this!”
She got involved. She became a shop steward, and later got on the executive board of her local, UFCW Local 3000. She helped recruit members to contribute an extra dollar a week to the union’s political action fund. She was a stalwart.
But the more she learned about the way the UFCW was being run nationally, the more perturbed she became. Not much money was going toward organizing new workplaces, yet some union officials had salaries of hundreds of thousands of dollars, which struck her as unconscionably high. Oligario, who makes $24.40 an hour at Safeway after nearly four decades on the job, began getting mad. Was this what she had donated countless hours of her life to help build? Had she struggled to raise four kids on a meager salary while a group of lazy union officials lived extravagantly with her dues? Had she urged her poor coworkers to donate to a union that wasn’t willing to spend that money to help organize workers in need?
“That pissed me off,” she says.
Inside of the UFCW, a reform movement is rising — and its epicenter is Oligario’s own Local 3000.
Labor unions are institutions. They are susceptible to the sort of rot that can afflict all institutions: fading energy, bureaucratic stasis, the risk of losing sight of their larger purpose and becoming a rest home for an entrenched management class. All of these tendencies have contributed to the inability of organized labor in America to maintain its power over the past half century in the face of attacks from business and their government allies.
The UFCW, with 1.2 million members, is one of the largest private-sector unions in America, and the largest inside the AFL-CIO. Yet it lacks the fighting reputation of some of its peers. Its members range from healthcare workers to booksellers to cannabis retailers, but its base is in the grocery industry, and the food packing and processing industries that support it. The failure of grocery workers to emerge from the pandemic with any real, permanent gains — despite being some of the “essential workers” who risked their health to hold this country together — has not inspired confidence in the UFCW’s ability to wield power effectively. Most grocery workers were stuck with temporary pay raises that employers rolled back even as the pandemic was raging, and were forced to act as front line referees in the culture war over masks. Many of those now agitating for change inside the UFCW were inspired by what they saw as the union’s mishandling of those fraught years of crisis. The fact that workers at Trader Joe’s chose to start their own independent union, which has successfully unionized four stores in the past year, is a very public black eye for the UFCW’s ability to attract new members who are squarely in its jurisdiction.
When Kroger and Albertsons, two of the biggest grocers in America, announced their intention to merge in October 2022, a group of eight large UFCW locals immediately began a public campaign against it, saying the merger would result in fewer jobs, higher prices, and more corporate power that benefits investors at the expense of everyone else. (In 2022, a union-sponsored study found 14% of the UFCW members who worked at Kroger had been homeless within the prior year.) The locals were not joined in their battle, however, by the UFCW International leadership, which released only an equivocating statement that implied that the union’s leaders thought there might be a deal to be had in exchange for their support of the merger.
For some in the UFCW rank and file, who have firsthand experience of the devastating consequences of industry consolidation, this unwillingness to immediately mobilize in solidarity against a looming corporate threat was just the latest proof that Marc Perrone, the union’s international president since 2014, is a failed leader. Under Perrone’s watch, the UFCW has lost 100,000 members, despite a swelling treasury. In the past two years, two other big unions — the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers—have seen internal reform movements triumphantly succeed after decades of struggle. In both of those unions, activists managed to change rules that were a barrier to union democracy, then kick out establishment leaders who had presided over dispiriting declines in their unions’ power. At UFCW, an impatient band of reformers couldn’t help but think: Why not here?
Faye Guenther comes by her radicalism honestly. She grew up in the tiny rural town of Spray, Ore., raised by a single mother who worked in nursing homes, potato fields and road crews to make ends meet. Her father died homeless as a day laborer in Mississippi. Guenther, whose short blond hair, glasses and harried sense of urgency give her the air of a teacher trying to hold an unruly class together, managed to go to college, then landed a job as a union organizer in the late 1990s. She was the UFCW’s point person at the infamous “Battle in Seattle” protests against the World Trade Organization in 1999, and spent years organizing thousands of workers across Washington state. In 2019, she was elected president of her local, now known as UFCW 3000. Today, after a series of mergers, the local is the largest in the entire UFCW, representing more than 50,000 workers in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
Guenther’s experience at all levels of the union convinced her that much was broken. After a massive and costly grocery workers strike in Southern California in 2003 and 2004, she says, the UFCW’s leadership became gun-shy, viewing strikes as potential dangers to the union treasury. But Guenther and other activists in the union drew different lessons, about the importance of constant internal and political and community organizing, and about the inherent dangers of industry consolidation. They’d seen that the bigger companies were, the easier it was for them to withstand regional strikes by raising prices elsewhere.
“In my area, Fred Meyer and QFC used to be two independent grocers,” Guenther remembers. “If you struck one of them, you could push customers to the other, and you could put them out of business. So the strike was a very powerful tool.” Today, both of those chains are owned by Kroger, and the power calculus is much harder for the union.
Guenther’s frustrations grew throughout the years of Perrone’s leadership, culminating in the pandemic and its attendant lost opportunities: “It’s a time where workers have been deemed essential, and before, they were nothing. Let’s capture this moment. And I feel like we let the moment slip through our hands. That’s when I realized, there’s no option for quiet, keep-it-in-the-family reform. We have to have a public and open debate.”
The gap between the leaders of the UFCW and the reality of their members’ lives, she believed, had simply grown too wide. “There’s something fundamentally broken,” she says. “It’s sort of like a frat party, or a drinking club. There are some people who have a lot and want to hold their positions of power. And they’re representing workers who have nothing. And they don’t want workers showing up to meetings. They don’t want workers demanding more.”
At the end of January, Guenther and a group of like-minded peers announced they were launching a campaign to unseat Perrone and pass a slew of constitutional reforms at the UFCW Convention in late April. Guenther, Oligario, and two allies decided to run as reform candidates. It is important to say here that their slate, dubbed “Meet The Moment,” did not expect to win the union’s executive seats. In fact, just before the start of the convention, the slate decided to withdraw its candidates from the officer elections, and focus their efforts on pushing constitutional reforms. The UFCW, like many big unions, has an insular management structure that tends to concentrate power at the top, which makes those officials relatively impermeable to grassroots democratic upheaval.
In particular, UFCW does not have a “one member, one vote” structure that would allow members to easily vote out leaders. Winning “one member, one vote” was the key to the success of the UAW’s reform movement, and it is a central demand of those at UFCW as well — precisely because it makes all other changes possible.
Instead of direct election, each local gets a set number of delegates according to its membership — but the system is weighted in favor of small locals, meaning larger locals have less per capita representation. “The delegate allocation is really, really undemocratic,” says Joe Mizrahi, a veteran UFCW labor attorney and secretary-treasurer of Local 3000. He serves as campaign manager for the Meet the Moment slate. “It’s like the Electoral College system on steroids.”
Among the most devastating consequences of all this, reformers say, is the UFCW’s flagging interest in organizing new workers — a squandered opportunity at a time when unions in general and essential workers in particular enjoy high popularity. “Having a more militant, newly organized worker base is antithetical to [Perrone’s] goal of staying in power,” Mizrahi says. ”Your incentive is to keep a small number of presidents in a few regions happy.”
One person who has witnessed this dynamic up close is Todd Crosby. He served as president of Local 3000 from 2014 to 2019, when he left to become UFCW International’s organizing director. He had high hopes of expanding the union, but left a year and a half later after losing confidence in the Perrone administration’s commitment to organizing.
To organize successfully, Crosby says, he needed two things: funding, and a willingness from International leadership to urge the union’s locals to prioritize innovative new organizing projects. He got neither.
Currently, Crosby says, much of the UFCW’s “organizing” budget is dedicated to communications and research work. He says he proposed a plan to spend $150 million over five years on actual worker organizing — on hiring new organizers, and on a program to pull ten-thousand members temporarily out of their jobs, train them in organizing, and send them back as grassroots shop leaders. (Many union contracts allow this possibility under a provision known as “loss time,” in which the union covers workers’ salaries while they take leave to do union work.) Under this plan, the UFCW International would have spent an average of $30 million a year. Instead, according to Crosby, the organizing budget while he was there “went from the low double [million] digits down to the single digits.”
“There was more interest in saving money — in becoming more of a credit union than a trade union — than investing money in our members to go organize and build power,” Crosby says. This view was echoed by several reform leaders, who described Perrone as someone more likely to brag about the UFCW’s financial balance sheet — the union’s total assets have more than doubled during Perrone’s tenure — than about any union organizing. (This attitude would not be unusual. A 2022 report from Radish Research found that in the past decade, unions in America saw their financial assets grow by billions of dollars, even as staffing and union density declined.)
“Perrone is just not an organizer,” Mizrahi says. “He’s not a trade unionist. He’s a finance guy.”
The UFCW International declined to make Perrone available for an interview for this story. Nor would the union disclose its past or current organizing budget. Asked to comment on a number of specific proposals put forward by the reform slate, a UFCW International spokesperson would say only that “current leadership’s role is to facilitate the convention process,” and that the decisions would be made by delegates at the convention.
Revolutionizing a union as large as the UFCW would mean targeting not only the main office in Washington, D.C., but also the locals across the nation, each its own little kingdom. A basic principle of democratic unions is that the leadership should not be remote from the workers they represent, financially or otherwise. Inflated salaries of local union officials are often indicative of leaders who are more interested in entitlement than in service. One of the reform slate’s proposals would limit the annual salary of any local officer to $250,000 per year. According to federal data compiled by the reform slate, the highest paid UFCW local president is John Niccollai, who earned $700,000 as the head of 12,600-member Local 464A in New Jersey in 2022. Niccollai’s son holds the position of recorder in the same local, and was paid $345,000. Two other local presidents earned more than $500,000, five earned more than $400,000, and a dozen more earned more than $300,000. Of 74 total UFCW locals with more than 1,000 members, the data shows that 30 had presidents with total compensation higher than the proposed $250,000 limit. For context: Faye Guenther, who leads the largest local in the country with 53,000 members, earned $167,000. (Marc Perrone was paid $315,000.)
There is no comprehensive national data on the earnings of UFCW’s members, but last year’s survey of members working at Kroger — the largest pure grocery chain in America — found their average wage was about $18 an hour, less than $30,000 per year. These workers’ dues ultimately fund the lavish salaries of the UFCW’s officers. When Naomi Oligario, the Safeway worker who became a member of the reform slate, learned these salary figures, she was unspeakably mad. “Why the hell am I going to give you this money? That’s 16 bucks a paycheck, for what?
“I want to fix that.”
The Meet the Moment slate’s platform centered on breaking down the UFCW’s often insular and self-serving structure. In addition to pay caps, a one-member, one-vote policy, and the addition of rank-and-file members to the union’s executive board, the reformers are advocating a large investment in new organizing, coordinated bargaining to win national contracts, and first-day strike pay for all members who strike.
It’s the sort of plan you would naturally support, if you wanted to make the UFCW a fighting, democratic union capable of achieving a genuine balance of power with massive corporate employers.
Would it work? They weren’t optimistic.
Democracy in action is always a little absurd. Even more so when it’s happening on the Vegas strip. Watching the hundreds of lanyard-clad delegates trod through the brightly lit Mirage hallways, past the gelato bar and the slot machines and the Cirque du Soleil theater on their way to the Grand Ballroom, it is hard to imagine that this is the body that best represents all those struggling produce clerks and meat cutters. Perhaps that would be different if all of these delegates were actually working union members — but, according to the reformers, the majority of the 1,200 or so delegates at the convention are not members. They’re union staff. (UFCW International would not release a breakdown of the delegates.) It’s hard to bend an institution toward the will of its members when they aren’t there to cast votes.
In addition to the one-member, one-vote policy, a staple goal of the reformers is to make the delegates and the board more reflective of the actual membership. These structural issues, which are both important and esoteric, require a human face. So at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday, dozens of rank-and-file workers who were convention delegates flooded into an oversized hotel room on the 27th floor of the Mirage to speak out on a live stream. The room was stifling, particularly for all the workers wearing matching blue and black flannels embossed with the UFCW 3000 logo, the chosen outfit for the day. They also passed out red bandannas with a reform slogan, and when they all put them on, you could have been forgiven for thinking you were in a room of mine workers. The fervor was the same.
Enrique Romero, a clerk at a Fred Meyer store in Washington, spoke in favor of a proposed constitutional amendment to require the union to spend at least 20% of its budget on organizing. (According to an analysis by the reformers, the UFCW International has spent less than 5% of its budget on organizing for the past three years.) Romero, whose long, curly black hair and casual clothes gave him the look of a rock star on a day off, told me that only half the workers at his store were unionized when he got there three years ago. After an internal push by workers like him, UFCW 3000 successfully organized everyone else in 2022. The experience opened his eyes to the downstream consequences of a lack of investment in organizing.
“We need the funding,” Romero says. “We need more people like me that want to go out there and help people out. I’m just trying to put money in people’s pockets!” If the UFCW could organize widely enough to build more leverage across the entire grocery industry, he added, “then maybe I wouldn’t have to sell plasma to make ends meet.”
The gathering was put on by Essential Workers For Democracy (EW4D), a nonprofit positioning itself to be the UFCW equivalent of Teamsters for a Democratic Union — a group that sits outside of the union and works to revitalize it (in contrast to an internal reform caucus like Meet the Moment). The president of the EW4D board is Kyong Barry, who has been a grocery worker at Safeway for more than 20 years. She began thinking about these issues when she attended her first UFCW convention five years ago. “I realized, wow — there’s a lot of staff here. What’s going on?” she says. “They don’t feel members are worthy to tell our stories. We’re paying them to get our message out.”
Nearly everyone acknowledges this fight is just getting started. The executive director of EW4D is the tall, studious veteran labor organizer Steve Williamson (who is married to Rep. Pramila Jayapal, head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus). According to Williamson, the group’s next step is to spend the next year talking to workers inside UFCW, then stage a convention of its own in 2024 — a convention dedicated solely to essential workers. These are the beginnings of an inside-outside strategy in which the independent work of EW4D gets more members concerned about the issues, and provides more fuel for the reform spirit being cultivated inside the union.
Enrique Romero, full of enthusiasm, summed up the logic: “Who watches the watchmen?”
It didn’t take long for the reformers to see some tangible wins. On Monday April 24, the first day of the convention, Perrone announced that the UFCW was officially coming out against the Kroger-Albertsons merger. He did not credit the locals that had been agitating against it for the decision, but they nevertheless felt their efforts had paid off. Better six months late than never. A resolution for the union to explore establishing a healthcare division also passed, which had long been a goal of the reformers, who want to help the union’s tens of thousands of members in the sector build a dedicated power base.
What didn’t pass? All the substantial constitutional amendments. A limit on the salaries of local officials? No. Dedicating 20% of the budget to organizing? No. More spots for members on the executive board? No. One member, one vote? No.
The lack of any real structural breakthroughs was faintly disappointing, but expected. It didn’t seem to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm. Joe Mizrahi, who had been present for the very beginning of the reform movement, was able to see running into a wall at the convention as a necessary step in the process.
“For our local, we can do whatever we want to kick ass here in the Pacific Northwest. But we can’t be an island, because these are national and multinational companies. We need a national structure,” he says. “I don’t want to sound like I’m setting the bar too low, but I feel like we’ve already had a substantial victory, in the sense that these conversations have never been happening in the UFCW before. There’s been this good old boy system of decorum, and these issues have always been swept under the rug.”
Sitting on an overstuffed chair at a bar in the middle of the Mirage at the end of the day, Guenther tried to look on the bright side. There had been few constitutional wins, as expected, but the convention stood out for the unprecedented level of dissent voiced from the floor. “So many white men almost had heart attacks today,” she said with a wry smile. “There were so many lies. I love the UFCW. I don’t want people to get so mad. … I mean, it’s a facade. And we’re cracking it.”
Guenther is brimming with plans. She says that she is preparing a lawsuit against the UFCW arguing the union is violating Title One of the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, which guarantees the right of union members to have a democratic voice in their union. She wants to systematically travel the country to tell workers what is happening, and to listen to them and figure out their primary demands, all part of a five-year plan building up to the next convention.
“There’s going to be a committee of workers established, and they’re going to decide, and create a committee for the future of UFCW,” Guenther says. “That’s what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.”
All around us at the impromptu happy hour the reformers had organized, delegates in UFCW T-shirts from various locals swirled around and talked in loud voices over the casino’s blaring pop music. It was a rare moment at the convention that looked like a normal union event. As we sat, Guenther’s arm shot out, pointing just across the floor. Striding down the carpet next to us, accompanied by several men in suits, was Marc Perrone. He didn’t stop to chat.
A few moments later, he was gone.
Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.