Food Front Workers Say “Union No!”

by Steve, September 6th, 2007

laborWow. Food Front staff actually voted to dump their union.

I’m not surprised as much as disappointed. When I worked there ten years ago, apathy was very high. Many, many employees dragged their feet on joining the union when they were hired (something they could be fired for under the terms of the UFCW Local 555 contract). When I started there, fresh on the heels of a failed Local 555 organizing campaign at Nature’s fresh! Northwest, I took the initiative to try and get folks a little fired up about their union. I organized an election for shop steward. I served as assistant shop steward. I worked with the rep from Local 555 to engage the rank and file and educate them about their rights and responsibilities under their contract.

It was amazing to me that many folks didn’t appreciate the benefit of having collective bargaining in the workplace, especially after we had worked so hard to get representation at Nature’s.

In general, things seemed to work pretty well under contract at Food Front, though many still complained about dues (which local 555 set considerably lower than dues for their mainstream grocery workers). Rank and file staff had access to a real grievance process, which was used in one instance to remove a manager who had harassed women workers with impunity before the contract.

The initial contract was not especially great in terms of pay scale. For whatever reason, the generally non-union natural foods industry has always managed to undercut the wages of the mainstream, unionized grocery stores by a significant margin. So the folks who negotiated the original contract just wanted to get their foot in the door. Hey, they got guaranteed step raises, at least, instead of the ass-kiss-ocracy that was in place before. They figured in two years, we’d have another crack at pay scale.

But management didn’t see it that way. Wages stayed low. Folks moved on (myself included). Without committed people keeping the union engaged, and with turnover at the shop as well as at Local 555, the union started to take this one tiny shop for granted.

So I’m not surprised things fell apart. UFCW Local 555 represents 18,000 workers in Oregon and Southwest Washington; Food Front probably has no more than 50 represented workers (28 voted in the decertification election, which was 20-8 in favor).

I haven’t set foot in Food Front for years. I’m pretty sure some of the same folks are still working there; some of them must be going on 20 years or more. It’s not my place to tell them how to run things, but it’s a shame they couldn’t work it out with UFCW. Then again, maybe the UFCW wasn’t the best choice when they first certified.

Some staff say they will look for another, smaller union to represent them, but now they have to wait a year. I have my doubts, though, given the attitude expressed by employee Stephanie Hawkins about Local 555. “They’re big business. The co-op is the antithesis to that.”

That’s standard anti-union canard. It’s the old “two bosses” lie management likes to trot out when they want to discourage staff from organizing.

The union, of course, is a democratically governed, nonprofit organization which operates for the benefit of its members. The co-op, while not corporate-owned, is not employee-owned either. It is run for profit, and for the benefit of its member owners, not the workers. In my experience working for both corporations and consumer co-ops, both need union representation to give workers a democratic voice in the workplace. Maybe even more in co-ops, where wages are lower, there is less training and fewer standards, and arbitrary discrimination and promotions are the norm.

Hey, while we’re talking about it, anybody want to take a crack at organizing New Season’s? I know all Rohter’s moves. Let me dig up that article I wrote for the Alliance back in ’97 and the newsletter we distributed to all the workers at all the Nature’s locations….