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Stop & Shop Workers Vote to Ratify Contract—Although Benefits Will Shrink for New Part-Timers

Tuesday, May 7th, 2019

On Wednesday, May Day, the last of five United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) locals ratified a new three-year contract with Stop & Shop, following a 10-day strike—one of the largest the U.S. private sector has seen in years. Workers at Local 1459 in Springfield, Mass., voted overwhelmingly in favor of the new contract—in line with near-unanimous approvals by four other locals since the strike ended April 21.

The strike began in the week leading up to Easter, when 31,000 UFCW union members across New England walked off the job after Stop & Shop said it needed to “adapt to market conditions” to compete with behemoths like Walmart and Whole Foods/Amazon. Noting it is the only fully unionized grocery chain in New England, one with a pension plan and above-industry wages, the company proposed raising healthcare premiums, freezing overtime rates for part-time workers (who make up 75% of its workforce) and reducing pension benefits for non-vested employees.

UFCW members viewed these proposals as steps toward a two-tiered workforce, with full-time Stop & Shop employees at one level and part-time workers at another.

“I don’t think it’s right—it should all be equal,” says Mike Landry, an assistant meat manager who’s worked for 37 years at the Northampton store. “That’s why the union is fighting.”

Given the Easter holiday, one of the year’s busiest weeks for grocery shopping, the timing of the strike was particularly rough for Stop & Shop, owned by Dutch retail giant Ahold Delhaize. The company reportedly lost between $90 million and $110 million in sales, or about 3% of projected 2019 profits.

At one Stop & Shop in Northampton, Mass., the supermarket was virtually empty while picketers held signs outside, discouraging shoppers from entering the store. Inside, the bakery was closed, along with the deli, meat and seafood counters. The produce selection was hit or miss. A single-digit skeleton crew of workers outnumbered customers, and only self-service checkout was available. To keep the lights on at the company’s 246 stores in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts, Stop & Shop brought in replacement workers and sent corporate office employees to man the stores.

The grocery chain also hired temporary truck drivers and warehouse workers after about 1,000 Teamsters union members refused to cross UFCW picket lines. Management had to scramble to get food into stores and trash out the doors.

Ratcheting up pressure on the company was possible thanks to picket line protection language in Teamster contracts, says Sean O’Brien, president of Teamsters Local 25. “We enforced that language—we will never cross a picket line,” O’Brien says. “After their shifts were over, hundreds upon hundreds of Teamsters would go down and walk the picket lines.”

Out on the picket line in Northampton, Susan Jacobsen, 72, a member of UFCW Local 1459, and her colleagues saw solidarity firsthand: Local elected officials and customers joined in. Rabbis across the region told congregations it’s “not kosher” to shop at Stop & Shop ahead of Passover. A handful of U.S. presidential candidates joined picket lines, too. And members of a slew of unions—teachers, nurses, building trades workers and public sector workers—all helped support striking workers by joining picket lines and providing resources, O’Brien says.

“It’s been absolutely fabulous,” says Jacobsen. A bakery worker with Stop & Shop for 21 years, this was her first-ever strike. She picketed every day.

“If you firmly believe in the principles you’re standing for, there’s nothing onerous about it,” Jacobsen says. “People need to stand up for what’s right.”

When asked whether he would vote to ratify a new contract, David Morse, a UFCW Local 371 member in the Northampton store’s seafood department, said he’d be disappointed if future part-time hires see frozen overtime pay or reduced pension benefits. But, “it won’t stop me from voting for it,” he said. “We went through hell just to get what we have.”

When the strike ended, there was plenty for the UFCW to celebrate. Stop & Shop gave up its push to force employees’ spouses to take any health insurance offered by their own employer. The union also said Stop & Shop “kept healthcare affordable” with “low deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums.” The new contracts also hold the line on all sick time, personal days and paid holidays for current and future employees—Stop & Shop had wanted to reduce paid holidays and sick days for future employees.

But the company got some of what it wanted as well. New part-time workers won’t see time-and-a-half pay on Sundays and holidays, as current employees do. Instead, they’ll get a premium (e.g., an extra $1.50 per hour the first year) that will grow to a time-and-a-half rate after three years of employment. And then there’s this: The new contracts significantly reduce pension benefits for new part-time hires. While a current part-timer gets $225 per month after working 10 years, a new part-time would get $100, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette reported.

“It came down to, we had to get people back to work,” Tim Melia, president of Local 328 of the United Food and Commercial Workers International, told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. “There were a few things we weren’t that happy with. At the end of the day,” he said, “we had to accept this contract, and it was worth bringing back to the members.”

But across the country, unionized chains are still on the defensive. “There’s nothing left of Shaw’s, A&P, Pathmark, Waldbaum’s, Tops and Grand Union,” industry analyst Burt Flickinger told the Hartford Courant. “The Walmart bear is eating all the union competition.”

“I did this for other people’s children, for my grandchildren,” Jacobsen says as she restocks a shelf with cakes on her first day back at work. “We have got to stop this, putting people in tiny wages with no benefits.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on May 2, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jeremy Gantz is a contributing editor at In These Times. He is the editor of The Age of Inequality: Corporate America’s War on Working People (2017, Verso), and was the Web/Associate Editor of In These Times from 2008 to 2012. A

Stop & Shop workers win pay, benefits concessions after 11-day strike

Wednesday, April 24th, 2019

New England grocery store workers have won significant concessions from the Dutch firm that rules their day-to-day lives after an 11-day strike, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) announced Monday.

More than 30,000 Stop & Shop employees walked off the job on April 11 after negotiators from Netherlands-based multinational food retailer Ahold Delhaize spent weeks insisting the grocer’s frontline workforce would have to absorb higher health care costs and major changes to retirement benefits.

Such collective action has become rare in the private sector, where union membership levels are at historic lows and complex ownership arrangements involving multinational holding companies have attenuated the connection between the people who do a business’ actual work and the well-to-do executives calling the shots.

But the nearly two-week work stoppage drew high-profile support from both local and national leaders. Multiple 2020 presidential primary contenders visited striking workers in person, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D), and former Vice President Joe Biden (D). Boston Mayor Marty Walsh (D) and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) also showed their faces and shared supportive remarks at rallies with the strikers. Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) tweeted their support for the cause.

Attention from such dignitaries doubtless helped tighten the screws on the Dutch negotiating team. But local reports are crediting a humbler source of moral leadership for the ultimate resolution of the conflict, which was announced late on Easter Sunday by both the union and the grocer.

A slew of rabbis and Christian clergy around southern New England urged their congregations to honor the strikers by taking their Passover and Eastern business elsewhere.

“We encourage our members to celebrate the upcoming holiday in a manner that honors both the Jewish value of freedom and workers’ dignity,” Rabbis Allison Berry and Laura Abrasley of Temple Shalom in Newton, Massachusetts, wrote to their congregants in an email.

“I just personally wasn’t comfortable crossing the picket line,” Rev. Laura Goodwin of Holy Spirit Episcopal Church in Sutton, Massachusetts, told local reporters. “Flowers are nice, but they’re not as important as people’s livelihood.”

Civic solidarity of that kind can be essential to making a strike work.

When the private sector was more broadly organized decades ago, workers who voted to strike at any given firm knew they would be tapping into a resource much more powerful than any one store. Unionized suppliers and distribution partners would refuse to cross a picket line, amplifying the strike’s immediate impacts almost automatically. With union membership levels down by two thirds since the 1970s, however, modern strikes are a lonelier and more daunting prospect. Without assurances of meaningful support from colleagues, the success or failure of any given worker action rests more with customers themselves.

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Losing the holiday weekend likely put a substantial blemish on Stop & Shop’s 2019 books. Sales directly tied to Easter and Passover typically make up 3% of the firm’s yearly revenue, an industry analyst told Boston’s local NBC station, and the strike was probably costing the firm about $2 million a day even before factoring in the holiday.

That squeeze has now achieved what months of earnest discussion at the bargaining table could not, union officials announced Sunday night. The Dutch firm had reportedly sought sweeping cuts to compensation, including a higher employee charge for health care that would have dragged take-home pay lower. The firm also wanted to end pension offerings for new hires.

Neither side offered much detail about the deal struck Sunday. But both the UFCW and the corporate communications team for Stop & Shop described the new contract agreement as preserving the current terms on retirement benefits and health care cost-sharing. Workers across the 31,000-member union in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut stores will see wage increases as well, according to the statements.

Though private-sector workers have been less prone to strike lately than teachers’ unions and other public-sector labor groups, the apparent success of the protracted action in New England offers a reminder that collective-action tactics remain effective despite their declining use.

Fast food workers spent years agitating for union rights and a $15 hourly pay floor, racking up a series of local minimum wage victories while reshaping the lobbying alliances that have long protected the industry’s exploitative and publicly subsidized business model. Toys-R-US employees were able to extract a large payout from the private equity vultures that had seized the dying brand and stiffed loyal longtime staff thanks to similarly adamant protest work.

A protracted strike by Marriott hotel workers last fall also ultimately produced a negotiated agreement.

But it also afforded Americans a glimpse at how tenuous labor solidarity has become most of a century after unions forced robber baron capitalists to accept ideas like “dignity” and “safety” and “having a weekend.” Even athletes, perhaps the most culturally prominent union members in the modern U.S. economy, failed to respect the Marriott picket line during last fall’s Major League Baseball playoffs.

About the Author: Alan Pyke covers poverty and the social safety net for ThinkProgress.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on April 22, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

The Stop & Shop Strike Is Showing There’s Still Power in a Union

Tuesday, April 16th, 2019

Roughly 31,000 employees of the northeastern grocery chain Stop & Shop have been on strike for nearly a week across more than 240 stores in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. The workers, represented by the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW), walked out on April 11 after voting to authorize the strike in March. During what is reportedly the largest private sector strike in three years, talks continued Tuesday, with neither side able to make an agreement.

Stop & Shop is owned by Ahold Delhaize, a retail company based in The Netherlands. Ahold Delhaize is a $44 billion company, and it’s saved millions thank to the corporate tax breaks implemented by the Trump administration. Workers say that, despite these numbers, Stop & Shop is attempting to cut employee pensions, raise the cost of healthcare and roll back overtime pay. They’re also concerned about the company’s rising use of automation, which many believe will lead to inevitable layoffs.

The workers have received vast support throughout the community, while the stores have been forced to scrape by with temporary staff in many areas. An employee named Temika who works at a store in Providence uploaded a Facebook video detailing what the current state of the store. “I had a family member go in today and just take a look around,” she said, continuing, “It looked terrible. The prepared foods, the deli, the seafood department, the bakery—everything was shut down. The tables looked exactly the way they looked the day [everybody went on strike], which means they haven’t been rotating anything.”

The current state of Stop & Shop should be a legitimate concern for the company. The Southern California grocery strike of 2003 to 2004 led to the establishment of new grocery chains and customers shifting their allegiances after they began shopping at different stores. The same trend could very well impact New England. Customer Gail Zulla told a local news station that she used to shop at a Providence location of Stop & Shop but had been picking up her groceries at the local rival Shaw’s. “It’s the busiest I’ve ever seen a Shaw’s in my life,” she said, “It’s like it’s a snow storm. There’s no bread, there’s nothing.” She said she’ll take her business elsewhere while the strike is underway, adding, “maybe I’ll stay at Shaw’s.”

When In These Times spoke with UFCW Local 1445 political director Jim Carvalho last month, he said that the union was hoping other workers would be inspired by the actions of the Stop & Shop employees. This appears to have born out. The striking workers have received solidarity from faith groups, other unions and local lawmakers. Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen of Beth El-Keser Israel in New Haven told The New Haven Register, “Any food purchased by crossing a picket line or from scab workers is not kosher for Passover.” The Teamsters Council 10 has stopped picking up trash for the company, and Massachusetts Democratic Senator (and presidential candidate) Elizabeth Warren showed up at a picket line with coffee and donuts for the employees. “These giant companies think they can knock unions back,” Warren told the Somerville crowd on April 12. “Unions are here to stay because when you’re fighting for your family, you stay in the fight until you win.”

After a video of Boston Bruins legend Ray Bourque leaving a Stop & Shop was posted on social media, the former hockey player felt compelled to release a statement via Twitter. “Being a union hockey player for 22 years I respect Unions and the work that they do.” Bourque tweeted. “I have a medical condition that I was preparing for this morning and mistakenly crossed the picket line at Stop & Shop. On my way out I apologized immediately. I support the employees of Stop & Shop and once my medical condition is resolved I plan on returning to stand in solidarity and will walk the picket line alongside the members of the union.”

While unionization is declining throughout the country, Massachusetts—where most Stop & Shop stores are located—has actually experienced a sizable uptick. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the amount of workers who consider themselves part of a union went up by 16% from 2017 to 2018.

However, Stop & Shop remains one of the only remaining unionized stores in the industry, as big-box retailers like Walmart have put others out of business in recent years. As grocery industry analyst Burt Flickinger recently told The Boston Globe,“Stop & Shop is the last, best, and final hope for the great Roman empires of unionized food retail chains.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 11, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements.

OSHA Rejects GAO Poultry Recommendations: Sees No Problem With Workers’ Restroom Access

Tuesday, December 12th, 2017

In a surprising and disappointing apparent rollback of OSHA’s enforcement policy related to poultry inspections, Acting Assistant Secretary Loren Sweatt has rejected recommendations from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) designed to address findings that poultry workers are intimidated about reporting health and safety problems to OSHA, particularly about their inability to get bathroom breaks. The GAO recommended in a report released last week that OSHA “consider off-site interviews or exploring other options to obtain information anonymously,” and that OSHA inspectors make a greater effort to ask poultry workers about the extent to which bathroom access is a problem.

The GAO report is a follow-up to its May 2016 study that found meat and poultry workers have the highest injury rates of any industry, and that even those numbers are underreported.  The current report notes that the meat and poultry industry had the 8th highest number of recent severe injury reports of all industries, although the industry’s self-reported injury and illness statistics declined from 2004 through 2015. Severe injury reports result from a recent OSHA requirement that employers report to OSHA all hospitalizations, amputations and loss of an eye (in addition to fatalities.)

GAO also observed that while OSHA had increased its annual inspections of the meat and poultry industry from 177 in 2005 to 244 in 2016, it’s still a tiny proportion of the 5,282 meat and poultry plants in the United States that employ an estimated 481,000 workers.

The report was conducted at the request of Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Robert Casey (D-PA), and Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA).  In addition interviewing OSHA and USDA staff, the GAO conducted group and individual interviews with meat and poultry workers in six locations in five states: Arkansas, Delaware, Nebraska, North Carolina, and Virginia.

The report comes in the midst of a highly controversial industry effort to increase the line speed in poultry processing plants, a change that would increase musculoskeletal injuries suffered by poultry workers.

Intimidation

The GAO found that although the number of OSHA inspections had increased over the past ten years, OSHA “faces challenges identifying and addressing worker safety concerns because workers may be reluctant to contact OSHA for fear of employer retaliation.” Because OSHA interviews workers in the workplace, and those interviews are conducted in private, the supervisor still knows the identities of interviewed workers. Making the problem worse, according to GAO, “some meat and poultry workers may be less likely to report or seek treatment for injuries and illnesses because of their vulnerable status as undocumented or foreign-born workers and because of their economic vulnerability.”

Interviews with workers revealed widespread complaints about supervisors discouraging workers from using the restroom

Aside from workers being reluctant to report serious safety and health conditions, the problem most overlooked may be their lack of bathroom access. Interviews with workers revealed widespread complaints about supervisors discouraging workers from using the restroom. OSHA guidance issued in 1998 states that denial or delay of bathroom access can result in various serious health effects, such as urinary tract infections, constipation, abdominal pain, and hemorrhoids, and workers interviewed by the GAO also reported that they had suffered health effects like kidney problems from delayed or denied bathroom breaks. Under OSHA’ sanitation standard (CFR 1910.141), employers are required to make toilet facilities available so that employees can use them when they need to do so.

According to GAO:

Workers we interviewed in all five states said their requests to use the bathroom are often delayed or denied, and workers in two states said they fear punishment if they ask to use the bathroom too frequently or complain about lack of bathroom access to their supervisors or to OSHA. One industry representative told us they believe some supervisors in meat and poultry plants deny bathroom access in order to maximize production output.

The problem with enforcing the right of a worker to go to the bathroom, according to the GAO,  is that if workers fear dismissal or other punishment for talking to OSHA about bathroom breaks, OSHA inspectors may not become aware of the problem. Furthermore, OSHA inspectors do not always ask specifically about bathroom access, and workers who experience bathroom access problems may not volunteer this information either because they’re afraid or because they may not realize that such information would be of interest to OSHA.

Common Sense Recommendations:  Rejected

In order to address the intimidation issue, learn more details about hazards, injuries, and illnesses and gather more information about bathroom break problems, the GAO made two recommendations to OSHA: First, that OSHA should “take additional steps to encourage workers to disclose sensitive concerns during OSHA inspections of meat and poultry plants; for example, by considering additional off-site interviews or exploring other options to obtain information anonymously.”

Second, in order to determine whether, and to what extent bathroom access is a problem, OSHA should simply ask workers during meat and poultry plant inspections about whether bathroom access is a problem.

But despite the GAO’s findings, OSHA leadership doesn’t think there is a problem that has to be dealt with, and anyway, it would be too much trouble. A letter from Deputy Assistant Secretary Loren Sweatt accompanying the report states that:

GAO’s recommendation to conduct additional offsite interviews, however, is challenging in terms of witness cooperation, resources and CSHO safety. Moreover each inspection requires a flexible approach to address unique workplace hazards.  OSHA cannot commit to asking about bathroom access during each inspection at a meat or poultry processing facility.

Nothing in these GAO recommendations is particularly new or novel. OSHA’s Field Operations Manual, which sets forth the procedures under which OSHA conducts inspections and enforcement, emphasizes the importance of “a free and open exchange of information between OSHA inspectors and employees” and allows inspectors to conduct interviews off site when they feel that off-site interviews would be more effective.  The problem is that if the workplace doesn’t have a union, or worker advocates that are helping the workers, it can be difficult to find an acceptable time and venue.

Furthermore, an OSHA poultry directive, issued in 2015 and currently under legal challenge, authorizes inspectors to expand inspections beyond other hazards that may be the subject of the inspection — including musculoskeletal injuries and bathroom access —  and some regional OSHA poultry emphasis programs require inspectors to inquire about bathroom access.

In rejecting these GAO recommendations, OSHA may be signalling a reversal in long-standing OSHA enforcement policy. 

Thus, in rejecting these GAO recommendations, OSHA may be signalling a reversal in long-standing OSHA enforcement policy. Deborah Berkowitz of the National Employment Law Project and a former OSHA official in the Obama administration, was quoted in Inside OSHA saying  “We are stunned that OSHA’s response to the glaring findings in this report is to announce a rollback of longstanding enforcement policies, thereby ensuring that the poultry industry will have an easier time hiding serious hazards. The inevitable result will be even more injuries to this already vulnerable worker population. That is simply unacceptable.”

See No Evil, Hear No Evil…

According to GAO, “OSHA officials said they did not believe lack of bathroom access was a widespread problem in the meat and poultry industry” and offered a number of creative explanations:

  • OSHA has not compared bathroom access practices in the meat and poultry industry with other industries involving moving production lines because they vary by establishment even within a single industry. (This, even though OSHA has cited poultry establishments for lack of bathroom access a number of times.)
  • requiring inspectors to investigate bathroom access would divert inspectors’ limited resources from higher-priority hazards and could result in companies’ claiming that the line of questioning is unsubstantiated.
  • there were a small number of citations issued related to bathroom access. (Of course, this is somewhat circular reasoning: The GAO argued that the reason for few citations may be that workers don’t raise the issue unless OSHA inspectors ask about the problem. See no evil, hear no evil…)

And in an understatement one rarely hears from government bureaucrats, GAO stated that “There is a mismatch between concerns we heard from workers and the problems reported by OSHA, particularly in the area of bathroom access” and kindly suggested that “given that workers whom we asked about bathroom access during off-site interviews in all five states said that bathroom access is a problem, and worker advocates we interviewed stated it was as well, it is

possible that OSHA is missing instances of this hazard, resulting in incomplete data to guide its inspections.” True, it is possible.

In an understatement one rarely hears from government bureaucrats, GAO stated that “There is a mismatch between concerns we heard from workers and the problems reported by OSHA, particularly in the area of bathroom access.”

But I am less charitable than GAO. I suspect that the real reason for OSHA’s blindness may not just be innocent naïveté, but rather a bit of over-attentiveness to their industry friends who don’t seem overly concerned about the problem. The GAO reported that “Meat and poultry industry representatives we interviewed said that bathroom access is not a problem because companies provide bathroom access when needed.”  And after the report was issued, the National Chicken Council, the National Turkey Federation and the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association said that the poultry industry “is constantly looking at ways to continue to improve” worker safety, and Barry Carpenter, president of the North American Meat Institute explained that “In a tight labor market like the one we have now, there is an even stronger incentive to protect our employees and ensure that they are healthy and able to perform their jobs.”

And just to make sure that OSHA never sees bathroom access as a problem, poultry employers have sharply increased the number of denials of entry to OSHA inspectors — forcing them to get a warrant — as OSHA increased inspections of poultry plants during the Obama administration and began expanding inspections beyond the initial complaint incident to look at things like musculoskeletal injuries and bathroom breaks.  From 2005-2015, there were only 16 denials of entry in the meat and poultry industry, but in just 2016 alone, there were 15 denials, all in Region IV, specifically in Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi.

Other Issues

Medical Mismanagement: The GAO also confirmed problems that OSHA had previously identified with medical mismanagement of workers suffering from musculoskeletal disorders, including inappropriate medical treatment, lack of worker access to health care, underqualified practitioners, and challenges to reporting. In one case, OSHA reported that a number of workers were fired after suffering MSDs — sometimes on the same day of the MSD occurrence — and in another case a worker made over 90 visits to the nursing station before referral to a physician. GAO talked to workers and worker advocates who reported similar problems. GAO recommended that OSHA revise its medical management guidance and OSHA agreed.

Cooperation With FSIS: A 1994 Memorandum of Understanding between the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and OSHA calls for FSIS inspectors — who are present in most poultry plants —  to make referrals to OSHA when they identify unsafe conditions. FSIA is responsible for ensuring the food safety of meat and poultry products. Despite efforts in recent years and some cross-training of FSIS inspectors, such referrals are rare, partly because FSIS inspectors fear that referrals to OSHA may trigger an OSHA inspection of FSIS due to a number of hazards FSIS inspectors are exposed to. GAO made three recommendations related to these issues to encourage OSHA and FSIS to work more closely together and to address hazards faced by FSIS inspectors from chemicals used to disinfect chickens. FSIA was noncommittal.

Research: Finally, GAO made a recommendation to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to study safety and health hazards of FSIS inspectors’ exposure to peracetic acid. NIOSH agreed.

What Others Are Saying

I’m not the only one upset about this report and OSHA’s response.

Industry watchdog Nebraska Appleseed, applauded the report quoting a former meatpacking worker in Nebraska: “Meatpacking plants are not only slaughterhouses for pigs, they are also slaughterhouses for humans,” said Lupe Vega-Brown.”They exploit you and after you get injured, they will fire you. Within a few years of working at a plant, it will end your dreams.”

A NELP statement added:

Echoing the finding of its 2016 report, the GAO was particularly critical of how in-plant health units treat injured workers—highlighting new concerns of inappropriate response to worker injuries and illnesses and persons working outside their legal scope of practice. (The 2016 report confirmed that meat and poultry workers continued to face the same hazardous conditions previously cited by the GAO in 2005—including traumatic injuries from machines and tools, exposure to chemicals and pathogens, and fast-paced repetitive tasks associated with musculoskeletal disorders.)

According to an Oxfam statement:

“The health and safety problems that workers face in poultry processing plants have been exacerbated in the past year due to a growing climate of fear and oppression in an industry where workers are mostly immigrants, refugees, and people of color,” said Alex Galimberti, Senior Advocacy and Collaborations Advisor for Oxfam America. “Every day, workers experience problems, such as denial of treatment for repetitive motion injuries, lack of access to bathroom breaks, and sexual harassment. Most of the time, they feel unsafe reporting these issues to federal agencies or to top level management.”

Oxfam issued a report in 2016 about the bathroom break problem in the poultry industry.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union praised the report and tied it into the industry’s recent push to increase line speeds:

“The hard-working people who work in poultry plants have some of the most dangerous and physically demanding jobs in America. This report sadly confirms that many of these skilled professionals who keep our food safe are struggling to keep themselves safe at work. They have earned and deserve better.

“The dangers endured by poultry workers that are highlighted in this report also underscore why a recent request by the National Chicken Council to increase line speeds defies common sense and is being clearly driven by greed. We urge the U.S. Department of Agriculture to take this report seriously and reject that request so that poultry workers and the food we all consume can be kept safe.”

Congressman Bobby Scott and Senator Patty Murray made the following statements:

“When workers face intimidation, retribution, or fear losing their jobs for reporting hazards, seeking medical treatment, or simply using the restroom, it is incumbent on federal agencies to increase their responsiveness to those concerns,” said Congressman Scott (VA-03). “In addition, GAO reported that during 2016, 15 meat and poultry plants –all in the southeast—have refused OSHA access to expand complaint inspections to cover additional recognized hazards; this development has impaired OSHA’s ability to protect workers, and should compel the Department of Labor to vigorously defend its statutory authority to enter plants ‘without delay’.”

“Every worker should be able to make a living without risking their health or safety, so it’s deeply concerning to hear workers in meat and poultry factories are knowingly being put in harm’s way,” said Senator Murray (D-WA). “Given this report’s findings and the Trump Administration’s continued efforts to undermine worker protections, it’s clear our nation’s top health and safety agency needs a leader who has a record of fighting for workers lives and livelihoods—and I will continue to press OSHA nominee Scott Mugno on his commitment to put workers ahead of corporations’ bottom lines.”

This blog was originally published at Confined Space on December 12, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Jordan Barab was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor at OSHA from 2009 to 2017, and spent 16 years running the safety and health program at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Fight for $15 Just Scored a Big Win in Maryland. We Have Unions to Thank.

Thursday, November 16th, 2017

A law establishing a $15-an-hour minimum wage in Maryland’s Montgomery County was signed into law Monday, representing a comeback win after a similar measure was defeated by pro-business Democrats just ten months ago.

It’s a meaningful victory for the Fight for $15, the union-inspired campaign to raise wages nationally. Montgomery is the most populous county in the state, with a larger population than the nearby cities of Washington, D.C., or Baltimore. It’s also a bellwether for Maryland politics, where organizing has begun already ahead of the 2018 statewide elections, including organizing aimed at improving Maryland’s wage laws.

“The difference that $15 an hour will make for so many working families cannot be underestimated. And the entire county will benefit as more workers will be able to move off publicly funded programs and spend more on local businesses,” Jaime Contreras, vice president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ, told In These Times over email.

Contreras and SEIU have been prominent in the labor coalition that has been supporting a higher minimum wage, along with the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, the Laborers’ International Union of North America and others. “We are really proud of what we have accomplished. As with any compromise, we are not totally pleased, but this is a real step forward,” Jonathan Williams, spokesperson for UFCW Local 400, told In These Times.

“The $15 minimum wage win in Montgomery County comes on the heels of last week’s 11 victories of Fight for $15 supporters Ralph Northam in Virginia and Phil Murphy in New Jersey. It shows the continued power of this movement and builds momentum for state-wide action next year in Maryland and other states,” Christine Owens, executive director of the workers’ advocacy group National Employment Law Project, told In These Times over email.

Satisfaction with the victory notwithstanding, some worker advocates grumbled that the political compromises necessary to solidify support came at a high price for some workers. The compromises had been hammered out over the last several months in response the Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett’s veto of similar legislation approved by the County Council in January.

One of these compromises was an exemption from the law for workers under age 20, a concession to Leggett’s concern that the increase would hurt job opportunities for minority youth. Another compromise extended the phase-in schedule of higher wages so that the $15 minimum does not take effect for small employers until 2023 (50 workers or fewer) or 2024 (10 workers or fewer). For large employers, the new minimum will be phased in through 2021.

Owens said Montgomery “residents should be concerned that county leaders excluded from the full $15 wage younger workers—many of whom are from low-income families or are struggling to work their way through two or four-year colleges—and tipped workers. We urge the county council to revisit and remove these harmful carve-outs.”

Williams added that the UFCW is among those advocating for a state-wide $15 minimum wage bill that could address the problems in some of the carve-outs. Political efforts are initially focusing on selecting a Democratic Party candidate for governor who will be a reliable supporter of $15. Currently, there are numerous candidates in the race, and Democrats are debating who would be the strongest candidate against incumbent Republican Larry Hogan, Williams says.

Hogan is not a supporter of a higher minimum wage and provoked the anger of many workers’ rights advocates in Maryland earlier this year when he vetoed a bill to provide guaranteed sick leave to workers in the state.

UFCW has not endorsed any candidate yet, but SEIU issued an early endorsement of Benjamin Jealous, the former head of the NAACP who is running for governor on a Bernie Sanders-inspired progressive platform, including the $15 minimum wage.

Aside from positive signs in local political races, Fight for $15 recently got a boost from one of the largest private-sector retailers in the country, Target stores. Following worker organizing, Target officials announced in September it would raise the minimum wage for Target employees to $11 an hour this year, with the goal of reaching $15 by the end of 2020. Target currently employs more than 300,000 workers nationwide.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on November 15, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

Food Workers Take On Fowl Play at Tyson—And Win Better Conditions

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017

A consumer pressure campaign against labor abuses in the chicken-processing industry has produced some initial results, with a detailed pledge this week from Tyson Foods to build a better workplace for its 95,000 employees.

The campaign, led by the famed hunger-fighting group Oxfam America, is challenging Tyson and three other large chicken producers to improve on their collective record of chronic worker safety problems, poverty-level wages and anti-union attitudes. It was launched in late 2015 with the help of a coalition of like-minded groups, including the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union. Tyson’s pledge is the campaign’s first visible success.

An announcement from Tyson executive Noel White carefully avoided the language of labor rights and emphasized, instead, “investing in sustainability … to create a beneficial cycle of contributing to the future.” Nevertheless, the pledge promises some real improvements in the lives of workers on the shop floor, including:

  • Improving workplace health and safety with a commitment to achieving a 15 percent year-over-year reduction in worker injuries and illnesses;
  • Committing to a goal of zero turnover, striving for a 10 percent year-over-year improvement company-wide in worker retention;
  • Hiring 25 or more poultry plant safety trainers, adding to about 300 trainers and training coordinators the company has hired since 2015;
  • Broadening a pilot compensation program at two poultry plants aimed at increasing base wages and shortening the time it takes new workers to move to higher wage rates;
  • Making public the results of third-party social compliance audits of Tyson plants;
  • Improving and expanding other existing company-wide programs for worker health and well-being.

“Tyson Foods’ commitment to worker safety and worker rights should not just be applauded—it should serve as a model for the rest of the industry,” said Marc Perrone, president of UFCW. “Through our ongoing partnership with Tyson Foods, we have already made valuable progress. We look forward to these new and expanded initiatives.”

Oxfam campaign chief Minor Sinclair echoed Perrone’s call that other chicken producers adopt Tyson’s approach. The three other companies targeted by Oxfam—Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue and Sanderson Farms—have thus far refused to engage with the Oxfam-led coalition, Sinclair tells In These Times. The three are now “lagging behind” in their treatment of workers and their sensitivity to the concerns of consumers, he says.

Sinclair credited other organizations in the “Big Chicken” coalition for the initial breakthrough with Tyson. In addition to UFCW, other prominent members include the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center. Even the U.S. Department of Labor has supported the safety goals of the coalition, he says.

Tyson itself has only recently had a change of heart about the Oxfam campaign, Sinclair continues. For the first year or so, Tyson typically ignored Oxfam and its allies. “For many months we felt stonewalled.” But a change came in late 2016, he says, at about the same time Tyson named Tom Hayes as the new chief executive.

“I can’t really say the exact reason that Tyson changed its attitude, but I don’t think it is a coincidence,” Sinclair said about the change in leadership.

UFCW is the largest union at Tyson, representing about 24,000 of its hourly workers, says company spokesman Gary Mickelson. There is some unionization at 30 of the company’s 100 U.S. food-product plants, he says, with a handful of other unions representing an additional 5,000 employees.

One of the other union is the UFCW-affiliated Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Randy Hadley, a RWDSU organizer, tells In These Times he hopes to see results from Tyson’s pledges soon. A cavalier approach to worker safety has characterized the meat industry for decades, he says, and improvements are long overdue.

“I hope this isn’t just a bunch of PR nonsense,” he says.

RWDSU, which represents Tyson workers in one of the Alabama chicken plants, has seen an increased emphasis on safety recently, according to Hadley.

“We have seen an increase in the number of safety meetings and safety training sessions,” he says, “so I’ll give them credit for that.”

Language barriers are the biggest obstacle to effective safety training, Hadley adds, because Tyson recruits a lot of new immigrants, including political refugees from the Middle East and other hot spots, to work in the chicken plants.

“We have another plant that we represent in Tennessee. When we print out our union literature, we do it in 17 different languages. And some of these folks can barely read, even in their own home language,” Hadley says.

As part of the new commitments announced this week by Tyson, the company pledged to expand its in-house program called “Upward Academy,” which offers courses in English as a Second Language (ESL) and other services aimed specifically at new immigrants.

This week’s announcement follows the company’s 2015 move to raise wages at most of its plants. At that time, Tyson said it would establish a new minimum of at least $10 an hour, up from $8 to $9 an hour. Top labor rates for certain skilled maintenance jobs were to be raised to as high as $26 an hour at the same time.

This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on April 28, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

What the Boy Scouts Have to Do with Unions

Sunday, August 30th, 2015

Jackie TortoraYou’d have to live under a rock to not be somewhat familiar with the Boy Scouts of America program. The Boy Scouts work to instill values in its young members and one of those values is workers’ rights on the job. Mainly, the ability to join and form unions.

Lanette Edwards of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1625 has stepped up to make sure that the next generation of young leaders to emerge from the Boy Scouts in Central Florida will be well-versed in the rights and challenges that America’s working families face. While the American Labor merit badge has been around since 1987, it isn’t one of the more well-known badges boys can earn. Edwards wanted to change that and started teaching classes in Tampa and Orlando. The response from Scouts, leaders and parents was overwhelming, with more than 150 attending the Tampa class (with 50 more being turned away because of space limitations) and another 75 in Orlando.

Edwards spoke to the importance of teaching labor to the Scouts:

“These boys are our next generation. We need to start early because there is already so much influence on them from big corporations and the news. These youth…need to know how it is with the middle-class workers. As we know, a lot of them will be in the workforce soon. Union jobs pay more. Or when they get their business degree and happen to be in management or own a business, they will be aware of unions and have more sympathy for their workers.”

Learn more about the curricula that Scouts must complete to earn the American Labor merit badge.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on August 28, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jackie Tortora is the blog editor and social media manager at the AFL-CIO.

 

 

 

The Union Behind the Biggest Campaign Against Walmart in History May Be Throwing in the Towel. Why?

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

David MobergIn the pre-dawn chill of Black Friday 2012, a half-dozen yellow school buses pulled up at a South Side Chicago Walmart store, disgorging a small group of striking Walmart workers and nearly 250 supporters.

Along with strikers and allies in 100 other cities around the country, they had come out that day under the aegis of the year-old Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), created to give Walmart workers a vehicle to protest their mistreatment—including low wages, skimpy benefits, erratic scheduling and aggressive management suppression of employees’ voices at work.

“Somewhere, somehow, down the line, it’s going to make a big difference,” said Tyrone Parker, a striking night-shift stocker, at that first Black Friday action.

“If you weren’t excited after some of those Black Fridays, you were dead,” says formerUnited Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) President Joseph Hansen, who started OUR Walmart and the labor-community coalition Making Change at Walmart in 2005. “It was going to be a long haul, but I thought we had no choice.”

After Hansen’s retirement last fall, the union’s 55-member executive board elected Secretary-Treasurer Anthony “Marc” Perrone as the next president. Leading up to the vote, Perrone had questioned the amount of money that had been devoted to the Walmart campaign without gaining any new members for the union, whose membership has declined in recent years. Several sources close to the campaign, not named because they are not authorized to release financial information, estimate that the overall cost had been about $7 million to $8 million a year.

In April, four months into Perrone’s tenure, the Washington Post reported rumors of potential cutbacks to OUR Walmart. In These Times’s sources say the union plans to cut the campaign’s budget by as much as 65 percent.

Sources close to the new leadership say no cuts are planned, only realignments, such as spending more money on advertising and public relations campaigns to highlight Walmart’s faults. At the same time, UFCW will try to parlay the Walmart efforts into “a broader retail campaign,” according to new Executive Vice President Stuart Appelbaum, regarded as an ally of Perrone. This probably will encourage more organizing at other retailers to win contracts and dues-paying members.

As Buzzfeed reported in June, the union also removed two directors of the Walmart effort, Dan Schlademan and Andrea Dehlendorf, in May. Meanwhile, the board of OUR Walmart—five worker-members and the two directors—has sought and received new funding from two progressive donors, according to the director of a funders’ group to which both belong.

Most key labor leaders, whatever their view of OUR Walmart, are unwilling to talk very much, because they hope to continue to work with UFCW on the Walmart campaigns, if possible.

Although OUR Walmart and the Fight for 15 (the Service Employees International Union-backed fast-food workers’ campaign, which has targeted McDonald’s) have been expensive for the unions, they’ve stoked worker and public fervor against two of the mightiest global corporations.

“The union’s biggest accomplishment is the development of OUR Walmart,” says an ally in the campaign who feels that new spirit may be lost in the reshuffling.

How big is too big?

The UFCW largely ignored Walmart when it was a small-town, Southern five-and-dime chain. But as Walmart moved north and west and into groceries, the union had to challenge the mega-retailer to protect its contracts. A massive array of strategies has been tested, with little success: organizing department by department (when butchers at a Texas store voted for the union, Walmart eliminated all its butchers); organizing in Quebec, where laws favor unions (Walmart closed the store); organizing in strong union towns, like Las Vegas (several campaigns failed after supervisors intimidated a majority of workers out of unionizing).

UFCW has also tried educating the public about the high costs of Walmart’s low prices. In 2005, both SEIU and UFCW began publicity campaigns about the corporation’s misbehavior (called, respectively, Walmart Watch and Wake Up, Walmart). Walmart Watch revealed a 2005 internal company memo on how Walmart might cut its already low pay and benefits without incurring bad publicity by increasing the number of part-time workers. Such well-aimed, sharp darts wounded the company’s reputation and may have been a factor in declining profits, although customers have also faulted Walmart for badly stocked, disorganized stores, unattractive produce and poor service.

But these campaigns did not yield union members. By failing to organize the retail behemoth, which provides 8.9 percent of jobs in the sector (which in turn employs nearly 1 in 9 U.S. workers), unions lost power to set wage and labor standards. Since 1983, the percentage of retail workers who belong to unions has declined by half—to 4.4 percent.

When Schlademan started work at the UFCW in 2010 on what would become the new Walmart strategy, he tried to learn from workers and organizers in past campaigns, as he explained in an interview with In These Times in December. First, he concluded, the campaign had to break down the barriers isolating workers from each other, both within and among stores. Second, Walmart workers wanted to be “front and center” in the campaigns and in solving problems. Third, workers had to discover the power of collective action, primarily through strikes, which Schlademan called “probably one of the most liberating things labor does. Striking—just [the act of] striking—helps build leaders.”

Over the next three years, OUR Walmart’s key achievement was mobilizing workers to take direct action against the company. OUR Walmart members challenged management at both their workplaces and at shareholder meetings in Bentonville, Ark., often with work stoppages, sit-ins or similar protests. In the process, effective and committed rank-and-file leaders emerged.

The campaign also won praise for its effective use of online organizing. Organizers and members used the web to move workers into reallife collective protests, build small groups of leaders at individual stores, and arrange local and national direct actions. The online connections produced more direct, horizontal relationships between Walmart workers than in most unions, which have a more hierarchical organization.

OUR Walmart said the campaign was just trying to make Walmart a better corporate citizen, not organize a union. Technically that was true (and tactically necessary, given labor law restrictions on picketing employers for long periods). But in spirit, OUR Walmart resembled a strong minority union, without enough votes to win a formal union and collective bargaining, but with other tools that could be used to solve workers’ problems.

The campaign wrung several concessions from Walmart. Workers won a few pilot programs to reduce inconsiderate scheduling, and a worker-led campaign to “Respect the Bump” yielded better pregnancy accommodations. Accompanied by publicity campaigns attacking the company’s stinginess and its owners’ extreme wealth, worker actions undoubtedly helped prompt Walmart’s decision in April to raise its lowest wages to $9 an hour this year and $10 next year.

Hopes for transforming Walmart—and thereby the whole low-wage economy—rose among supporters.

OUR Walmart is “a little IWW-ish,” Schlademan said in December. In their early 20th-century heyday, the Industrial Workers of the World eschewed contracts in favor of direct action at work. In OUR Walmart, Schlademan sees a similar appetite for militant action and a more vigorous involvement in the collective, horizontal conversation.

At the time, Schlademan said, OUR Walmart was preoccupied with securing its right to exist without being attacked all the time: “Walmart must realize OUR Walmart is not going away.”

But sustaining an expensive campaign like OUR Walmart is difficult with voluntary dues of $5 a month per member. Schlademan has since been cut from the UFCW payroll but is still working with OUR Walmart. And rumors of UFCW withdrawing funds have begun circulating, although a network of progressive donors recently pledged money for OUR Walmart to maintain its work.

If UFCW, the organization’s sponsor, cuts back on OUR Walmart, how will managers—and workers—interpret the move?

Critics of the union’s focus on OUR Walmart believe that broadening the agenda to all retail will spread around organizing dollars more effectively, yielding more unionized shops and more dues-paying members. No organizing is easy, but looking beyond Walmart may provide more realistic targets. In New York—the historic stronghold of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (now a department within UFCW)—UFCW Vice President and RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum has overseen successful organizing of clothing boutique workers, such as clerks at the Swedish-owned “cheap chic” H&M stores.

Victory at such companies will bring new members but will not necessarily transform the retail industry the way success at a major chain like Walmart or Home Depot could.

The union will almost certainly maintain some special focus on Walmart. “Nobody wants to walk away from or abandon effort on Walmart,” says one union staffer, who was not authorized to speak with reporters. But the union’s Walmart project “will be a more media-focused campaign,” relying on print and television ads, says the staffer.

Media buys can be very expensive, however. Forbes reported that UFCW “spent six figures” on a Fourth of July ad blitz portraying Walmart as unpatriotic for stashing $76 billion in 15 foreign tax havens. And if past attacks haven’t altered Walmart’s stance on unions, will more exposés do the trick?

On the other hand, the sweeping victories of the 1930s and 1960s in industries from automobiles to healthcare suggest the value of a sector-wide strategy for retail. But can one union take on a sector with 16 million workers?

It starts with the workers

Stephen Lerner is the architect of SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign, one of the most successful sector-wide organizing efforts of the past three decades. He argues that, with labor hanging by a thread, most U.S. unions have gone into defense mode—which only occasionally delays further slippage—rather than playing offense using creative, large-scale campaigns.

Though most analysts see the evershifting Walmart campaign as a defensive effort to keep Walmart from driving down labor standards at other, unionized grocery chains, Lerner believes OUR Walmart is an example of a sweeping, innovative effort. “It’s pretty impressive what workers in OUR Walmart have achieved so far,” he says. He notes that strikes have yielded concrete victories and that creative online organizing has allowed workers to help move people into action, not simply to “scream into the void.”

For workers to form a union against the will of an industry or a big company like Walmart requires “an enormous amount of time” to understand the issues, overcome fears, develop leaders, and formulate a “theory of how to beat the company,” which may vary from target to target, Lerner says. Justice for Janitors’ big breakthrough, in a 1988 organizing campaign in Denver, came in part from understanding that targeting building owners, for whom janitorial costs are minuscule, was essential to organizing the small, costsensitive cleaning companies. “There’s not one tactic or secret sauce to take on an entire industry,” he says.

As UFCW revises or expands its organizing mission, it would seem smart to look for ways to apply the strategy and style of work of OUR Walmart—that is, educating and empowering member-organizers and leaders—throughout its retail organizing. That includes recognizing the utility of the internet for real organizing, breaking barriers and building solidarity and expanding open, direct, horizontal lines of communication among members and workplace leaders. It also includes realizing the crucial role of strikes and direct action in building a sense of collective power and communicating with supporters and the public.

OUR Walmart member Tyfani Faulkner, 32, a high school graduate from Sacramento who knew nothing about the labor movement when she took her job, now loves going online to answer questions or solve others’ problems, or to work for legislation or a candidate she favors (most recently, Bernie Sanders). Her “proudest moment,” she says, was participating in a two-hour sit-in at Walmart this past November. OUR Walmart has produced many powerful worker-leaders and vocal progressives like Faulkner who organize effectively—and at no cost.

The emergence of leaders like Faulkner reinforces the urgency of taking seriously Lerner’s key advice, which is as simple as it is often ignored: “You can’t win without the workers.”

This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.com on August 11, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at davidmoberg@inthesetimes.com.

Workers Battle With Grocery Chains Over Obamacare Implementation

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

Bruce VailUnions representing about 30,000 grocery workers in the Puget Sound region claimed a victory last week in a labor contract fight that centered on the implementation of Obamacare in the area’s biggest supermarket chains.

Western Washington state locals of the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) and theTeamsters have been bargaining for months with representatives from Kroger, Safeway and Albertsons, all among the largest supermarket chains in the country. In addition to the elimination of health insurance coverage for 8,000 part-time workers, the initial demands from the grocery retailers included extended wage freezes and selective elimination of overtime pay, according to Seattle-based UFCW Local 21. The workers were within hours of beginning a strike before a last-minute deal was reached on October 21.

“I started working in the grocery business over 40 years ago. The proposals we saw this time from employers were some of the worst I’ve ever seen. They tried to turn us into Wal-Mart. They did not succeed,” commented Local 21 President Dave Schmitz in a formal statement  issued at the end of the ratification vote October 25.

Though union representatives like Schmitz are declaring the deal a victory, in reality, the ratification is only a partial success for workers. In Seattle, part-timers were not cut from insurance eligibility, as Kroger and the other chains had demanded, and no new healthcare costs were imposed, says spokesman Tom Geiger. But contract gains on wages were “modest,” Local 21 says, and other negotiating achievements were limited to beating back demands for sweeping concessions. For their part, the grocers maintained that the deal preserved “good wages, secure pensions and access to quality, affordable healthcare for [their] employees.”

Beginning Jan. 1, 2014, Puget Sound grocery workers will earn wages ranging from $9.42 an hour for newly hired checkout clerks to $19.50 for the highest-paid meat-cutters and other experienced food specialists, Geiger says. In keeping with a historical pattern in the area, this hourly rate for lowest-paid workers is 10 cents more than the state’s minimum wage (Washington currently has the highest minimum wage in the country at $9.19 and hour with a scheduled rise to $9.32 at the beginning of 2014). Rather than a general wage increase in the contract’s first year, each union member will receive a bonus payment based on the number of hours they worked over the last year. In the second and third years of the three-year contract, most union members will get a straight wage increase of 25 cents an hour each year.

But other potential improvements in wages or other benefits are being sacrificed, at least in part, in exchange for companies footing the rising bill of the existing health plan, the union reports. The grocery chains currently pay $4.38 for each hour worked by a union member into the health fund, with that figure rising to $4.86 over the life of the contract. That increase is expected to pay the costs of maintaining the health insurance plan at its current level of benefits for the next three years. Local 21 and UFCW declined to comment further on contract specifics, though Schmitz’s statement acknowledged that the unions “did not get everything they wanted.”

Because the Affordable Care Act requires many companies to pay more for employees’ healthcare, grocery worker unions across the country are facing stiff concessionary demands as their employers make the transition. Early this year, New England UFCW locals reached an uncomfortable compromise with the large Stop & Shop grocery chain that was similar in some ways to the Seattle agreement. In that case, UFCW agreed to eliminate healthcare eligibility for some part-timers, but only on the condition that the supermarket company provide financial and legal assistance in obtaining similar healthcare coverage from other sources for the dislocated workers. And similar contract struggles still under way in New YorkCincinnati, Baltimore, andWashington, D.C. show that union leaders nationwide are facing unusually heavy pressure as grocery chain corporations frequently try to cut their own costs at the expense of healthcare for employees.

In an October 28 message, Tony Speelman, lead negotiator for New York’s UFCW Local 1500, acknowledged that Obamacare “has presented unprecedented challenges” to workers and corporations alike. However, he said, Local 1500, which is now in negotiation for a new contract with Stop & Shop, “came to the bargaining table in good faith understanding that we would have to make changes to our health fund to be compliant under the legal requirements of [the Affordable Care Act].”

And, as he points out, there’s no reason for companies to take the law’s passage as an opportunity to cut workers’ benefits. “Stop & Shop seems to think [Obamacare] is an opportunity to achieve three goals: increase their profits, pick their employees’ pockets and undermine the union contract. That type of irresponsible bargaining will only lead to three conclusions: a work stoppage, unnecessary inconvenience for their customers and devastating economic damage to hundreds of New York communities.” In general, he continued, Obamacare “was not passed with the intent of eliminating an employer’s responsibility to provide affordable and comprehensive healthcare to its employees.”

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on November 6, 2o13.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

Kentucky Couple's ‘Ride for Respect’ at Walmart

Monday, June 3rd, 2013

berry craigJames and Trina Vetato knew about the freedom riders from history books.

This week, the Paducah, Ky., couple expects to join a civil rights movement-style protest against the world’s largest retailer. The Vetatos are activists in the employees’ group Organization United for Respect at Walmart, or OUR Walmart for short. Trina currently works at a Walmart store and James is a former Walmart employee.

Called the “Ride for Respect,” the demonstration at Walmart corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., will be modeled on civil rights volunteers who rode buses into the South in the 1960s to protest Jim Crow racial injustice, says James Vetato.

Busloads of OUR Walmart members will converge on Bentonville from across the country. They will be in town for the annual shareholders’ meeting June 7. Vetato says he expects 300 or more OUR Walmart members to begin arriving the week before the meeting. Most of the protesters—including Trina Vetato—will be taking part in an unfair labor practice strike, says her husband.

The protest will go on the whole week before the meeting. We especially want to draw national attention to Walmart management’s threats and retaliation against workers who speak up for better pay, more hours and respect on the job.

Vetato worked at his wife’s store in Paducah. When he stood up for his rights, he says:

I was threatened and intimidated by management who made my life so miserable I finally quit.

Our Walmart wants better pay, benefits and working conditions. “Like the freedom riders, we will be standing up for dignity and respect and justice and will be protesting peacefully,” Vetato says.

OUR Walmart isn’t a union, but the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) is helping the group, says Vetato.

Some other unions are in OUR Walmart’s corner, too. The Paducah-based Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council unanimously passed a resolution expressing its solidarity with the workers’ struggle at Walmart.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on June 2, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Berry Craig is the recording secretary for the Paducah-based Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council and a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College.  He is a former daily newspaper and Associated Press columnist and currently a member of AFT Local 1360.

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