Food Front Workers Say “Union No!”

by Steve, September 6th, 2007

Wow. 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….

13 Responses to “Food Front Workers Say “Union No!””

  1. Comment from Jack:

    Interesting post. Why is it that “natural foods” workers are mostly unorganized? I’ve always been curious about this. They charge premium prices for their products, but the workers get paid crap (I assume) relative to workers at Safeway, Freddy’s, etc.

    I used to get major attitude from the workers at my local Wild Oats (that’s changed recently, though). I boycotted them for more than a year because I got sick and tired of dealing with the jerks who worked there. The night-and-day difference between the attitude of Wild Oats workers and Safeway/Freddy’s workers was pretty obvious, and I thought it might have something to do with unionization. It’s definitely easier to be civil to people when you’re not worrying about how to pay the rent. Or maybe it’s just that more jerks are attracted to working at a “natural foods” store?

  2. Comment from marcia:


  3. Comment from MikeS29:

    My ex-wife works for a Natural Foods co-op and the pay is crap, top to bottom. The prices may be higher for products than at a big chain grocery, but so are expenses. It is difficult without being bankrolled by some corporate fat cats.

    I suggest the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or “Wobblies” as they are known, for this kind of shop. Low dues, as democratic as it gets, and totally not into the “two bosses” mentality of some of the bigger unions. I think monthly dues are $5 to $10.

  4. Comment from Himself:

    Jack, natural foods stores started as hippie buying clubs and morphed over time into the commercial juggernaut you see in Whole Foods and New Seasons. Co-ops like Food Front are the last survivors with any ties to the communal roots of the natural foods industry.

    There has always been a resistance to organizing, especially with “hip” managers smoking out with you in the produce cooler, or giving you mushrooms for your birthday, or farmers laying some nice green and red buds on you around Christmastime. (Not that I’d know anything about that.)

    But now we have Whole Foods, which is no different from Safeway, really, in terms of business model. Except they conveniently don’t have to deal with an organized work force. How nice for them and how sad for the workers, who have to put up with all the bullshit of a Fred Meyer worker, without the benefits, protections and guarantees of a union contract.

    Mike, you’re right about higher prices at independent co-ops. But not at Whole Foods and New Seasons.

    Also, I’m pretty sure the Wobblies were among the unions looked at a decade ago when Food Front workers were first organizing. I know we talked about the IWW during the Nature’s union campaign, but the bottom line is you get what you pay for.

    At Nature’s we were dealing with GNC (yes, that GNC), and it sure helped to know an 18,000 strong union was at my back. They gave me free legal representation, filed (and won) and unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (boy was my boss surprised when I showed him my subpoena to testify).

    The Wobblies might have been a better choice for Food Front, I’ll grant you, but for Nature’s, it had to be someone like UFCW or the Teamsters to get their attention and keep them within the law.

  5. Comment from Steve Buel:

    People are standing in line to work at New Seasons because it is supposedly a great place to work. Must be doing something right, it is a great store — I am shopping there all the time instead of my neighborhood Safeway — nothing like great customer service from employees who are actually empowered to help you.

  6. Comment from Wacky Mommy:

    “employees who are actually empowered to help you.”

    How are they “empowered”? They’ve got no union. And if they don’t smile, they don’t get to keep their jobs. You get paid in “cool bucks,” not a living wage.

  7. Comment from Himself:

    I think the empowerment Steve’s talking about is the fact that employees are allowed leeway in going against store policy to try and make things right with disgruntled customers.

    It’s a bit of a gimmick, really, but it certainly works to satisfy customers (like Nordstrom, they’d let you return a set of tires from Les Schwab if you bitched hard enough). As far as working conditions, though, it doesn’t go all that far.

    Employees still have no protection against favoritism in promotions, raises and scheduling, no real grievance process, and nobody’s got their back when it comes to trying to make changes in the work place. The boss holds all the cards, which is precisely the point of a union.

  8. Comment from Elizabeth:

    This is enlightening, addressing some issues I’ve wondered about. But….isn’t Food Front a worker-owned co-operative? Doesn’t that mean they all have the same say? I need to know more about this. Food Front is where I primarily do my grocery shopping–that and the farmer’s market. (But a great garden is doing away with need for most produce.)

  9. Comment from Himself:

    Food Front is a consumer-owned cooperative. Workers can buy a share like anybody else, and even serve on the board. But many workers are not members. Even if all workers were member owners, they would not control a significant share of the co-op.

    In other words, the fact that it is consumer-owned means precisely nothing to the worker’s relationship to her employer.

    By the way, membership benefits, including a discount and the ability to volunteer in exchange for a greater discount, were curtailed while I worked there. Not surprisingly, management blamed the union for this, even though nobody from the union ever complained about it.

  10. Comment from Herself:

    It amazes me how many people seem to have a say about what the CURRENT employees at Food Front want. There were 34 people in the bargaining unit. 28 opted to vote. 20 of them voted against representation by the UFCW.

    Maybe you were around when the UFCW came in. However, you haven’t been there in recent years. YEARS AND YEARS where we wouldn’t see a union rep unless they were coming in to count the number of dues paying members on the schedule. YEARS without ONE grievance filed.

    The grievance that was filed by an employee regarding sexual harassment was actually taken care of through in store policies, NOT through the union.

    In fact, there were two other grievances filed since. One was filed, and the union waited so long, the window of time expired for any action to be taken. What’s extra humorous about that one is that management took care of the issue LONG before the union got back to them.

    The other grievance was dismissed because it had no warrant. The union agreed that the proper paperwork was submitted in regards to the employees constant tardiness (hours late) and absenteeism.

    Yes, we’re looking into another union. Yes, we’re talking of an internal organization. Yes, we’re looking to COOPERATE.

    People assume that we are wooed by management. That we have no mind of our own. It’s insulting at best. Do you realize that most of us went against our personal politics? That it was one of the most troubling and difficult decisions many of us have ever made about a place of employment? Or, do you just assume that we’re mindless children being led blindly by our managers?

    It’s insulting, childish, and judgmental. You don’t know all of the facts. You don’t understand how much of a toll this took on many of us.

    CHECK YOUR FUCKING FACTS before talking shit about a bunch of people living paycheck to paycheck trying to do what is best for the COLLECTIVE.

  11. Comment from Wacky Mommy:

    Um, that comment was not from “Herself,” aka Wacky Mommy (Hockey God’s partner) — this is another Herself, apparently.

  12. Comment from Himself:

    Hi “Herself”. You’re obviously very upset. What I said: “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.”

    I’m not trying to speak for you. I’m speaking for myself and my colleagues who busted our humps and risked our jobs to get much needed representation at Nature’s and Food Front. When Food Front certified and got a contract, it was a huge victory for all natural foods workers in Portland. We can’t point to that anymore, and that’s a shame.

    I’m truly sorry you couldn’t work it out with UFCW. I said “the union started to take this one tiny shop for granted.” I saw this happening as soon as the original rep (who had a background in community organizing) left UFCW.

    Good luck to you all without a contract. I sincerely hope management continues to honor the spirit of it: respect for seniority, regular step raises, no favoritism and no arbitrary discrimination. But if history is any indicator, that’s not very likely.

  13. Comment from Red Grocer:

    Hi everyone,

    I’m an IWW member, and have been since I was involved with an IWW organizing campaign in 2001 at Nature’s on Division St. (the same store that saw a UFCW drive a few years previous). I learned a lot about organizing in natural foods from that experience, especially since we lost the union representation election.

    I currently work at New Seasons, and let me tell you, the place isn’t necessarily the heaven on earth that most of our customers seem to think it is.

    IWW members have been watching the Food Front decertification with interest. If anyone at FF would like to talk to our union, please contact our office at 503-231-5488. We are not explicitly interested in bargaining for another contract at FF. In fact, our union’s philosophy is that there are more direct ways to organize for gains on the job, even if a union is recognized by the boss.

    Best to you all! In solidarity,

    Red Grocer