About 700 workers at a Rite Aid distribution warehouse in Lancaster, California celebrated a victory when their union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 26, and Rite Aid reached a tentative agreement that provides wage increases in each of the three years of the contract, improves job security, gives workers a voice in setting production standards, and provides fair health insurance premium rates.
The agreement, which must be ratified by members on May 12, culminates a five-year campaign to win union recognition and a fair contract. “We’re excited about winning this victory even if it took longer than it should,” said Carlos “Chico” Rubio, a ten-year warehouse worker, who helped negotiate the first union contract with eight other co-workers.
Rite Aid, the third largest retail drug chain in the US with stores all over the US, has been trying to make its workers pay for mistakes made by management. The company in 2006 went heavily into debt to purchase Brooks and Eckherd drug store chains and since then has been trying to cut employees’ health care coverage and speeding up production in its warehouses.
Workers at the Lancaster warehouse decided in 2006 to form a union because company speed-up policies were making work at the warehouse unsafe and exhausting. They contacted the ILWU, which then began assisting workers build their union. The campaign for union recognition and the first new contract combined traditional organizing tactics and innovative outreach efforts that built alliances with other unions and worker justice groups and put the company on the defensive.
The workers won a union election in 2008, but the company tried to avoid signing a contract by stalling the negotiations. While Rite Aid stalled, the ILWU began a campaign to force the company to the bargaining table. The ILWU and other unions that represent Rite Aid workers in the US–the Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the Service Employees International Union–began communicating and sharing information about the company and its labor policies.
These communications led to a national campaign against Rite Aid that was supported by worker justice groups like Jobs with Justice and United Students Against Sweatshops. Last year, there were several national days of action against Rite Aid, which in addition to not bargaining in good faith with its Lancaster workers was trying cut health care benefits of its retail workers in Ohio, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
On Valentines Day, 17 separate demonstrations in seven states and the District of Columbia were held to protest Rite Aid’s attempt to lower their retail workers health benefits and its reluctance to bargain in good faith with its Lancaster workers.
In December at another national day of action the ILWU issued a statement accusing Rite Aid of “trying to make workers pay for management’s mistakes.” In October, the ILWU issued a research paper arguing the same point to investors and stock analysts prior to the company’s earnings report. The research paper entitled, Navigating Rough Waters — Can New Management Steer Rite Aid Back on Course?, said that ever since the acquisitions of Eckherd and Brooks, management had committed serious blunders that hurt profits and caused stock prices to fall all the while masking its incompetence with a “failed labor relations strategy” that lowered morale.
In June, the AFL-CIO tried to get the company’s annual meeting to adopt an executive compensation oversight committee because executive pay at the company was getting out of hand. The AFL-CIO reported that the then CEO of Rite Aid had a total annual compensation package worth more than $4 million despite the company’s lackluster performance.
The campaign that started in Lancaster five years ago finally ended on May 1 when the company agreed to a contract that gives a voice to workers on the job and provides for decent pay and benefits. But Rite Aid is still locked in disputes with other workers in other states. Rite Aid workers at six stores in Cleveland are out on strike because the company is trying to increase workers’ health care cost. And Rite Aid warehouse workers in San Pedro, California are still trying to win a union contract. Click here for information about these and other struggles against Rite Aid.