August 3, 2007


Food and Commercial Workers Union Leads Nationwide Revival of Worker Bargaining Strength in Key 21st Century Industry


Innovation, career opportunities, progressive wage scales and job security along with health care and defined benefit pensions seemed to be disappearing from union contracts.  Collective bargaining, in almost every industry, frequently became a struggle to slow the downward slide of benefit reductions, two-tier wages and job elimination. In a dramatic turnaround this year, the grocery workers union—the 1.3 million member United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW)—is leading a nationwide revival of worker bargaining strength that is winning contracts with unified wage progressions with the elimination of two-tier wage systems, adequately funded health benefit plans, continued defined-benefit pension plans; and innovative programs for preventive and wellness care benefits with no co-pays, no deductibles and no out-of-pocket expenses for workers.

The recent ratification of a new contract for 60,000 UFCW members in Southern California confirmed the changing dynamic in contract negotiations for grocery workers. The Southern California supermarket industry witnessed one of the longest and most bitter strikes in 2003-04 as workers walked picket lines for four and a half months in a fight to resist employer demands to eliminate affordable health care, to impose a substandard wage and benefit structure on new workers, and to rewrite contract provisions that provided worker protections. While striking workers were able to maintain much of their wage and benefit package, the employers forced provisions to severely limit wages and benefits for new employees.

The 2007 contract, reached without a strike, represents a new bargain for workers that could shape the future for retail workers. The new contract gives all employees a new opportunity for good jobs and career opportunities in an industry that is a critical source of jobs in the new service economy, particularly young workers and women. Workers won:

the elimination of tiers for health care, pension and wages;
a wage progression giving all workers regular wage advancement;
a higher average starting pay with annual wage increases;
adequate health care funding;
shorter waiting periods for benefit coverage; and,
adequate pension funding to maintain defined retirement benefit.
In a reversal of the trend to shifting health care costs to workers, the new benefit program reduces long term costs by providing preventive benefits without cost to workers.

The advances in wages and benefits come as part of a contract that protects workers from unfair or arbitrary discipline or dismissal, and provides standards for promotion, overtime and scheduling. These contract provisions are critical to workers as an antidote to retail industry practice of firing or forcing employees from their jobs in order to lower wages.  Circuit City garnered national attention when it launched an assault on its workers by summarily dismissing higher paid long term employees without just cause or any opportunity to appeal. (Washington Post, 3/29/07)

The Southern California agreement follows similar recent UFCW contract settlements in New England, Houston and Dallas, Texas, Detroit, Michigan and Toledo, Ohio.  Those contracts secured solid wage increases, expanded access to quality health care, and secured the financial base of health care and retirement benefit funds.  UFCW grocery workers are turning supermarket jobs into career jobs through unified bargaining actions.

Other contracts impacting tens of thousands of workers are being negotiated in Northern California, the Puget Sound area of Washington State, Eugene, Oregon and St. Louis, Missouri.

The new dynamic at work shaping the 2007 round of UFCW bargaining began with a systematic program to build unity among workers, communities, consumers and local unions—the “unity bargaining” program. In every negotiation, grocery workers from across the country are enlisted to support workers in bargaining everywhere in the country. UFCW members working at Kroger in Atlanta wore stickers in their stores to show support for workers in Texas. Workers in Arizona signed up on the web site to take action to help win contracts in California.

Mobilization for contract fights is union-wide and connects with all UFCW members. Community organizations and consumers were engaged from the beginning of negotiations to provide a solid foundation of support. Every UFCW local was prepared to provide immediate financial, staff and member support for any UFCW members forced to strike.

As UFCW International President Joe Hansen said, “Any strike, any lock out involving any UFCW local union in any area becomes a national labor dispute from the first moment of the first day of the first picket line until that dispute is resolved. We are one union, one voice.”

The revival of worker bargaining strength began almost immediately following the end the 2003-04 Southern California strike/lockout. Joe Hansen, a meatcutter from Milwaukee with a lifetime of union service from organizer to International Secretary-Treasurer, was elected International President, and began a complete restructuring of the UFCW to focus on growth for worker bargaining strength. Executive Vice President Pat O’Neill was assigned as Director of Collective Bargaining and put together a strategic, “unity bargaining” program.

“We are a new union. We are a new UFCW,” declared Hansen as he directed resources toward comprehensive organizing and bargaining in the union’s core industries of retail, meatpacking and food processing.

The focus on core industry organizing was essential to the revival of collective bargaining. Worker bargaining strength in an industry depends on organizing all workers in the industry. The decades-old labor movement-wide pattern of organizing without regard to industry has sapped worker strength in negotiations even in growth industries with rising employment. Hansen pledged a different approach. “We are organizing industry-wide to build worker power. The measure of our success as a union is in the lives of our members,” Hansen told his union.

The 2007 bargaining success also reflects a change in the retail industry. Union supermarket operations maintained or expanded market share, revenue and profits. In contrast, Wal-Mart—the anti-worker scourge of the retail industry—tripped and stumbled with a barrage of bad press and bad community relations with growing consumer, worker and political resistance to the super-sized retailer’s disregard for affordable health care, living wages, sex discrimination, the exploitation of immigrant workers and community impact.

“We are moving into a post-Wal-Mart era. Low wages, high turnover and contempt for worker rights are not the way to long term growth and profits. UFCW contracts providing for an experienced, committed workforce with decent wages, benefits and treatment are the foundation for corporate success in retail,” according to Hansen.

UFCW is positioned for a major impact on the workplace and workforce of the future. The industry with the most new openings for workers over the next decade is retail. The 2007 round of negotiations in retail food give all retail workers an alternative to the instability, insecurity and inadequate wages and benefits of retail jobs. “UFCW contracts provide what retail workers want—career potential with decent wages and benefits, job security, fair treatment and a voice. UFCW contracts are the basis for organizing the retail industry,” said UFCW Collective Bargaining Director Pat O’Neill.