It was the perfect storm – a powerful convergence of voices from all across the country, expressing their outrage and calling for justice. Union members joined forces with small grocers; community co-op activists petitioned their organizations for support.
All stood together – over 10,000 strong – in solidarity with 160 brave men and women who had put their livelihoods on the line to fight their employer, United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI), for fair treatment, dignity, and respect.
The strike by warehouse workers and drivers at UNFI started on December 10, 2012, and it stretched over two months, spanning some of the worst weather the Pacific Northwest can muster. Members held the picket line in the driving rain. They huddled around burn barrels in sub-freezing temperatures. And when an icy fog descended, they endured a burn ban that extinguished their fires.
The strike dragged on over Christmas and into the New Year. Members were served eviction notices, and families were on the brink of homelessness.
Working people had taken a stand. They were tired of having their rights trampled on. They were tired of the unfair labor practices – over 40 in all – that the company had committed during contract negotiations.
OVER 40 ULPS DURING BARGAINING
For over nine months, the largest organic foods distributor in the country waged a ruthless campaign, intent on breaking the Union. They reassigned bargaining unit work from the workers’ facility in Auburn to a non-union facility in Ridgefield, WA; they cut workers’ hours; they erected fences around the warehouse; they hired security guards; they held a job fair at the facility; they hired on a replacement workforce; and they sent letters home to workers’ families instructing them on how to resign from their Union.
“I’ve never seen a company like UNFI that treats their employees the way they treat us. They treat us wrong,” said James Dial, a warehouse worker.
Local 117’s legal department filed an astounding 45 unfair labor practices charges with the NLRB against the company during negotiations.
The final straw occurred on December 13, when UNFI permanently replaced 72 warehouse workers – nearly half of the workforce at the Auburn facility. The company had initially agreed to the Union’s unconditional offer to return to work after a three-day strike, but then rescinded its commitment.
“We agreed to take down the picket lines and UNFI pledged to accept our offer to return to work. The next day they told us that 72 of us were out of a job,” said Robert Jurey, a 13-year warehouse worker and Shop Steward.
SOLIDARITY IS THE LANGUAGE THAT WE SPEAK
But instead of dividing the workers, the company’s ploy had the opposite effect: Jurey and his co-workers rallied together. They vowed to continue the strike until all of the workers were brought back. No one would be left behind.
Their courage had a galvanizing effect. People across the country recognized the righteousness of their fight and the deep hypocrisy of a company peddling a social conscience while at the same time treating its workers with contempt.
There was a groundswell of support. Union members, co-op members, co-op owners, organic food activists, and concerned consumers denounced UNFI for its unfair treatment of its workers and Whole Foods for its failure to hold its supplier accountable.
SIGN OUR PETITION!
Over 10,000 signed an online petition calling on the companies to stop putting profits over workers and to commit to an ethical food supply chain. Hundreds sent emails to UNFI CEO Steven Spinner calling on UNFI to stop its illegal treatment of workers.
Steve Vairma, the IBT’s International Vice President and Director of the Teamsters Warehouse Division, was instrumental in helping organize leafleting actions at Whole Foods stores in New York, Los Angeles, Denver, Seattle and all across the Puget Sound region.
An article exposing UNFI and Whole Foods, written by Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association and David Murphy of Food Democracy Now!, was circulated on several prominent websites.
On Internet discussion boards, people voiced their support: “As a dedicated consumer of organic products, I will not shop at Whole Foods and can be counted on to tell everyone I can about their dismal labor practices,” commented one petition signer.
“I will boycott UNFI until they sign a union contract!” exclaimed another.
Buoyed by community support, the workers held strong as public pressure began to mount on the company.
Finally, on February 7, nearly a year after negotiations began and six months after the workers’ contract had expired, the union bargaining committee presented the group with a fully-recommended proposal that provided for the reinstatement of all workers, including the 72 who had been permanently replaced, health and welfare protections, and meaningful wage increases. By a vote of 122-11, the group ratified the 5-year agreement.
“Workers at UNFI stood together courageously to fight for dignity and respect,” said Tracey A. Thompson, Secretary-Treasurer of Teamsters Local 117. “They showed determination, solidarity, and fortitude. In the end, their spirit could not be broken.”
THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT!
“Local 117 is deeply grateful to all of the individuals, unions, co-ops, small grocers, and other community organizations that took actions in solidarity with the striking workers and to those who donated to the hardship fund set up to provide workers with financial relief. Your generosity has made a tremendous difference in the lives of the 160 workers and their families who have been impacted by the strike,” she said.