Members of Teamsters Local 117 on January 7 ratified a new five-year agreement with United Natural Foods Incorporated. The ratification vote ends a nine-week strike at a company distribution center in Auburn, Washington.
As a result of the agreement, 72 Local 117 members fired by UNFI in December will get their jobs back. The firings caused the workers to extend what had been a three-day unfair labor practices strike. The new agreement also protects workers’ health care and pension benefits and provides for wage increases.
Local 117 members and leaders called the new agreement a victory, which they attributed to worker solidarity and strong community support.
“Workers at UNFI stood together courageously in difficult conditions to fight for dignity and respect,” said Tracey Thompson, Local 117 secretary-treasurer. “With the help of our community partners and a strong bargaining committee, workers were able to achieve a fair and just contract.”
Despite reporting double-digit profits, UNFI, the nation’s leading distributor of natural, organic, and specialty foods and supplements, sought a new contract that reduced workers’ health care and pension benefits. The company also took provocative actions during negotiations suggesting that the company may have been trying to bust the union.
Before contract negotiations got underway, the company began hiring extra temporary workers and assigning them work performed by permanent union workers, an action that most workers saw as an attempt to recruit a replacement workforce before a strike had even begun.
While the two sides were negotiating, the union filed 45 unfair labor practices charges with the National Labor Relations Board, charging the company with acts of illegal surveillance, intimidation, and retaliation.
On December 10, workers walked off the job to protest UNFI’s unfair labor practices. Three days later, union members agreed to return to work unconditionally.
Union leaders said that the company agreed to allow all 160 strikers to return to work, but before the beginning of the first work shift after the agreement was announced, UNFI management fired 72 of the strikers.
Angered by the perceived betrayal, workers returned to the picket lines and expanded their contract demands to include the rehiring of the fired workers.
After the new year began, the two sides brought in a federal mediator to help resolve the issues. The mediator encouraged UNFI to make a reasonable proposal that could end the strike.
UNFI on January 11 made its proposal, which did not include the rehiring of the fired workers and contained language that eliminated health care protections and undermined retirement security. In fact, the January 11 proposal was similar in many ways to the proposal the company made and the workers overwhelmingly rejected in September.
When the union negotiating committee put the January 11 proposal up for a vote, members rejected it by a vote of 104-26.
One of the things that lifted workers spirits and helped them maintain their strike was the support they received from other union members and the community, especially members of co-op food stores in the Northwest Pacific area.
Shortly after the strike began, Olympia Food Co-op announced that it would stop receiving shipments from UNFI. After a week of refusing shipments, the co-op announced that it would resume placing orders with UNFI because it had not been able to find another distributor to replace UNFI, which provided about 60 percent of the co-ops packaged groceries.
Olympia, however, continued to support the strikers in other ways such as organizing customers to participate in a postcard campaign, posting handbills in the store about the strike, raising money for the workers’ hardship fund, and other actions.
Others community supporters came to the aid of the strikers. At a January 19 community outreach meeting, about 200 members of other unions, members of the faith community, and food co-op members turned out to hear UNFI workers tell their stories.
At the meeting, members of Central Food Co-op announced that its store employees would contribute $3,400 to the UNFI workers’ hardship fund, and other community supporters volunteered to leaflet Whole Foods, UNFI’s biggest customer.
The leaflet urged Whole Foods shoppers not to buy groceries delivered by UNFI.
Union leaders recognized the key role that community supporters played in helping UNFI workers win a fair contract.
“We are deeply grateful to all the individual unions, co-ops, small grocers, and community organizations that took actions in solidarity with striking workers and those who donated to the hardship fund set up to provide workers with financial relief,” said Thompson. “Your generosity made a tremendous difference in the lives of the 160 workers and families who have been impacted by the strike.”