Members of Teamsters Local 117 in Auburn, Washington returned to the picket line after United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI) announced that it would permanently replace 72 of the 163 warehouse workers and truck drivers who walked off the job on December 10 to protest the company’s unfair labor practices. Teamster members on December 13 unconditionally agreed to return to work; UNFI accepted the offer and agreed to re-open negotiations for a new contract. However, according to the Teamsters, the company rescinded its commitment.
“UNFI misrepresented its position regarding its workers’ good-faith offer to return to work,” said Tracy A. Thompson, secretary-treasurer of Local 117. “The company’s action to replace its employees is retaliatory, unlawful, and frankly despicable.”
Members of Teamster Local 117 have been seeking a new contract since February 2012. They want to raise wages and benefits to warehouse industry standards in their area.
UNFI is a leading wholesale distributor of organic and natural foods. Its biggest customer is Whole Foods.
More than 1,100 miles south of Auburn in Moreno Valley, California, UNFI warehouse workers seeking to join the Teamsters also charged UNFI with unfair labor practices. Union supporters said that company executives told captive audience meetings that voting for the union could result in lost jobs and that management personnel made threats to union supporters such as, “If the union comes into the warehouse, I am going to go and kill all you motherfuckers in the union.” (Translation from Spanish of a threat alleged to have been made by a warehouse manager).
Teamsters recently called attention to UNFI’s labor practice during a conference call with investors and stock analysts. “UNFI management is risking its business across the country by provoking its workers into an unfair labor practices strike,” said Steve Vairma, Teamster international vice president. “The Teamsters will be notifying customers nationwide regarding UNFI’s abuses.”
A report by the International Labor Rights Forum seems to substantiate complaints raised by the Teamsters.
ILRF found that at the Auburn warehouse, UNFI began hiring temporary warehouse workers through the temporary staffing agency Roadlink when Local 117 members indicated that they were not satisfied with the company’s new contract proposal.
UNFI pay rates at its Auburn facility are 24 percent below the prevailing warehouse wage in the Seattle area, where Auburn is located. Benefits also lag behind.
Workers reasoned that UNFI was doing well and should share its prosperity with its workers. UNFI’s after tax income for fiscal year 2012 was $91.3 million, up from $76.6 million in 2011.
When the contract expired without an agreement, the two sides agreed to extend the contract through June.
In May, the company began hiring temporary workers who did the same work as union members. As a result, union members lost overtime and other work opportunities that reduced take home pay by 30 percent to 40 percent. Some union workers saw their paychecks for a two-week period drop from $1,700 to $1,000. Union members interpreted the pay cuts as retaliation.
Talks between the two sides broke off in the fall after workers formally rejected the company’s final offer, but union members stayed on the job.
Things came to a head December 10 when workers called an unfair labor practices strike and walked off the job for three days.
UNFI touts itself as a socially responsible corporation that treats its workers with respect by providing competitive wages and benefits.
But according to Thompson, “UNFI is not the company it pretends to be. Instead of upholding its stated commitment to sustainable practices and social responsibility, UNFI is mistreating its workers and demonstrating a complete disregard of federal labor law.”
Company mistreatment is the reason that workers at UNFI’s warehouse in Moreno Valley formed an organizing committee in February 2012 and began a campaign for union recognition. According to union supporters, working conditions are unsafe, the company plays favorites assigning work and equipment, work hours are too long, and pay is too low.
After the union campaign began, said union supporters, management began making threats to union supporters including threats of physical violence. Management also, forced workers to sit through captive audience meetings where corporate executives and consultants said that forming a union could lead to jobs being transferred to another company warehouse.
Workers lost the union representation election held in May, but with the help of the Teamsters filed unfair labor practice charges against UNFI. After the election, union supporters continued to face harassment and threats. According to the ILRF report,
Several workers reported that they believed that UNFI management has discriminated against union supporters by attempting to discipline them for their work performance more aggressively than it has other workers. One worker stated, “I think that the situation is bad; if they find out you are organizing, they start to watch you very carefully; they are looking to call you out for any small reason.”
Finally, the ILRF heard allegations that UNFI had orchestrated the termination of several union supporters, justifying the dismissals on pretextual grounds related to work performance. In one instance reported by a worker, a supervisor told the worker in a conversation regarding unionization, “It would be better if you kept quiet. There are three people who have complained about what is happening here and they have all been fired.”