On August 24, members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555 overwhelminglyÂ votedÂ to authorize a strike for 20,000 grocery employees at Safeway, Albertsons, QFCÂ and Fred Meyer locations in the Pacific Northwest. ThatÂ move came roughly two months after members of the union voted to authorize a strike for aboutÂ 46,000 grocery employees in southern and central California, and four months after the unionÂ declared victoryÂ in New England followingÂ a successful 11-day strike by Stop & Shop workers.
The workers in California haveÂ reportedlyÂ reached a tentative deal that could avert a strike, but whether or not union members vote to ratify the agreement wonâ€™t be known until later this week.
Grocery workers in the Pacific Northwest are demanding higher wages and an end to the gender pay gap thatÂ permeates their stores. They have established proof for the latter, commissioning a third-party group to produce aÂ reportÂ on the issue. The research groupÂ Olympic Analyticslooked at the data on hourly wage, gender, age, years of Fred Meyer experience, and job title for 1,919 Fred Meyer workers employed in the area. It found that women are almost twice as likely to be given lead positions, but make about an average of $1.68 less than their male counterparts at those positions. In 2018, nearly 80% of the storeâ€™s bakery employees were women, while the higher-paying produce department wasÂ male-dominated. The gap between these two departments has barely shifted over the last 81 years:Â The pay gap between the two departments was 27.3% in 1937 and had only dropped to 21.5% by 2018.
Jane Thompson has been working at a Fred Meyer store in Bend, Oregon for 18 years, and has been in the Seafood Department for 12 of them. She hopes the strike authorization vote will lead to better pay for her and her co-workers. â€śThe company keeps taking more and more away from us,â€ť she toldÂ In These Times. According to the U.S. Census, the population of BendÂ increasedÂ by almost 30% between 2010 and 2018. While the boom has meant more customers, Thompson said it hasnâ€™t meant additional hires or higher pay. â€śIâ€™m doing the job of two people now,â€ť said Thompson.
Ann Poff is a member of the unionâ€™s bargaining committee and has worked as a deli clerk at Safeway for nearly 22 years. She currently makes $1.85 above minimum wage, but the minimum wage is set to increase in Oregon over the next few years. This means that sheâ€™llÂ make just $1.45 above minimum wage for two years, before making just 75 cents above it in the year after that. â€śThe minimum wage is going up, but our wages are going down,â€ť she reasoned. According to Poff, when she once asked to be transferred to a different position, her request was denied despite having spent over 20 years on the job. A male co-worker with less than a year of experience was allowed to switch to the position instead, she said.
At the last bargaining meeting, the employers actually offered a proposal that inexplicably paid many departments less than minimum wage by the year 2022. When confronted about this fact, managementÂ offered a mere dime over the stateâ€™s minimum wage. â€śFred Meyer/Kroger seem to be oddly comfortable being known as the grocer who profits off the devaluation of their workersâ€¦specifically women,â€ťÂ saidÂ the union in a statement.
Local 555â€™s president has indicated that there is a â€śhigh likelihood that we will see an economic action taken against stores in the near futureâ€ť and has promised to release details before September 10. Meanwhile, California grocery workers at Ralphs, Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions stores have been working without a contract since March and have already voted to authorize a strike. On September 8, it was announced that the union and the employers had reached a tentative deal, but members have yet to vote on it and no details have been released.
This isnâ€™t the first labor fight that has gripped the grocery industry this year. In April, roughly 31,000 employees at the New England grocery chain Stop & Shop went on strike at over 240 stores. The workers, who were also represented by the UFCW, were fighting against attacks on their pensions, rising healthcare costs, and the potential elimination of certain overtime pay. After striking for 11 days, the union agreed to a new contract and announced that the company had met their major demands. Ahold Delhaize, Stop & Shopâ€™s parent company, says that the strikeÂ costÂ them $345 million.
That number might be frightening for the grocery employers currently facing potential strikes, but itâ€™s also caught the eye of right-wing, anti-labor forces. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation aims to damage organized labor by fighting compulsory union membership in courts. Most notably, itÂ wasÂ one of the groups that represented child support specialist Mark Janus, who ultimately achieved a massive victory for the political right at the Supreme Court. The groupÂ hasÂ filedÂ two unfair labor practice charges against Stop & Shop for an employee named Matthew Coffey who opposed the strike.
Sam Hughes is a social media coordinator at UFCW and a former deli worker at Fred Meyer. Hughes, who prefers â€śtheyâ€ť pronouns, toldÂ In These TimesÂ that they had to work additional jobs because they often couldnâ€™t get enough hours from the store. â€śI found myself being paid low wages on food stamps, cutting deals with my landlord just to afford below-market rent,â€ť said Hughes. Hughes also said the strike authorization vote was a way to fight against the â€śdehumanization of workers,â€ť and that related labor victories throughout the country underscored an important point: â€śThereâ€™s a lot more of us than there are of them.â€ť
This article was originally published at In These Times on September 09, 2019. Reprinted with permission.Â
About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements.