Teamsters ratify agreement with organic food distributor ending nine-week strike

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.”

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Teamsters call out organic food distributor for unfair labor practices

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.”