Normally, union-management disputes are like unhappy marriages — no one not directly involved truly knows where the blame lies and why.
But the United Food and Commercial Workers’ bizarre series of moves on the West Coast — and to some extent elsewhere in the country — has made it hard for those on the outside not to form opinions.
From health care to retail, America’s frontline workers stepped up during the pandemic. One specific group of essential workers — grocery workers — have ensured Americans’ access to fresh food, household necessities, and even cleaning products. They masked up and showed up and kept communities stocked at rates never before seen.
Grocers installed partitions, introduced additional cleaning procedures, offered personal protective equipment, instituted daily temperature checks, reduced store capacity, enforced social distancing, added thousands to the workforce, and provided both a “hero pay” bonus and, in many cases, permanent salary increases. None of this was required under current collective bargaining agreements.
On top of that, several large grocers, including Kroger and Albertsons, invested billions of dollars last year to rescue their workers from antiquated and unstable multi-employer pension plans, a move United Food and Commercial Workers International President Marc Perrone has called a “critical step to ensuring these brave workers have the financial security they need.”
What has the union done? Its Houston local division threatened until the last minute to disrupt the whole bargained pension plan deal despite the dire condition of the previous plan.
Its leadership has refused to cut or even reduce membership dues payments to the union throughout the pandemic, all while Perrone collects $345,000 per year.
And when the hero pay subsided, the union began to lobby localities such as Seattle, Los Angeles, and Long Beach, California, among others, to enact ordinances requiring extra pay for grocery workers. In Los Angeles, the proposal is for $5 per hour; in Long Beach, it is for $4.
Even $4 is double the bonuses the grocers paid for several months last year and basically would wipe out nearly any profits grocers make. Grocers earn about $2.20 for every $100 in sales. Grocery workers average $18 per hour, which means a $4 increase amounts to a 22 percent raise. Given labor is 9.4 percent of grocers’ costs, a 22 percent raise will increase expenses by 2.1 percent. That’s $2.10 of the $2.20 in profits grocers now earn.
Moreover, it would apply to ethnic minority-owned stores but not to non-unionized giants such as Walmart, Target, and Trader Joe’s.
The pay hike would squeeze customers as well, which won’t be popular in a state where nearly 40 percent of low-income residents have cut down on food and more than 60 percent have reported their income has decreased or disappeared altogether during the pandemic.
Research shows the measures would increase grocery costs for the average family by more than $400 per year. Kroger has announced it will close at least five underperforming stores in Southern California and two in Seattle as a result of the increased costs, and others are expected to follow suit or, like the fast-food industry, find ways to cut the number of employees and their weekly hours to compensate.
These mandates won’t make workers any safer. They won’t improve working conditions because workers and hours will have to be trimmed. They won’t help customers because prices will rise and service will decrease.
But what they will do is harness the power of government over some but not all grocers — ironically those that have been unionized for some time and already pay negotiated wages and benefits — to raise costs, reduce availability, and increase unemployment.
This should prompt some questions from members of the United Food and Commercial Workers. Why hasn’t the union waived dues or at least reduced them? In California, workers have suffered to the tune of $40 per month. Further, more than three-fifths of Californians have taken a pay cut. But union executives have not.
It should also raise questions for the millions of grocery and retail workers who wouldn’t receive the extra pay under the new ordinances, as well as other essential frontline workers. By adopting these ordinances, local governments are sending the message that only workers at large, unionized grocery stores face hazards posed by the coronavirus.
Why hasn’t the union done more to get workers to the front of the vaccination line, particularly when their employers, such as Kroger, Albertsons, Walgreens, and CVS, are key players in the distribution plan for the vaccine?
And why is the union pushing for city ordinances that will lead to more job loss, reduced hours, increased grocery prices, and reduced availability of food in the city’s most vulnerable areas?
If some good answers don’t emerge, then maybe it’s time to ask whether a divorce is in order.