Above photo: Nicole Rushing, center, gives a thumbs up as cars honk in support of protesters outside the Hawthorne Fred Meyer in Southeast Portland. Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB.
A weeklong strike is underway affecting a number of Oregon grocery stores, barely a week before Christmas Day.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, representing many employees at Fred Meyer and QFC stores, confirmed early Friday morning that it is moving ahead with a walkout at stores in Portland, Bend, Newberg and Klamath Falls. The details and specifics of a walkout are complicated. While the UFCW represents roughly 10,000 Fred Meyer employees, not all stores, departments or worker categories are participating in the strike.
The union has been in labor negotiations for months with the Kroger-owned supermarket chains. Last weekend, UFCW announced its members had authorized a strike.
Adam Thompson, who works at the Beaverton Town Square Fred Meyer store, joined workers picketing outside the store Friday morning.
”A lot of people honking and waving,” he said. “There’s a lot of people supporting us. It makes me feel like this is worth our time.”
Picketing outside the Beaverton supermarket began around 6 a.m. Friday, with over a dozen demonstrators present at 7:30 a.m. Over the next hour, the crowd grew larger.
Union and company negotiating teams have been meeting in contract talks this week, so far without word of any agreement.
Union representatives said that Fred Meyer has been underpaying certain workers, in violation of contract terms. A UFCW spokesperson has also said the grocery chain hasn’t been providing necessary information to the union to refute or verify its concern, or to address it through the grievance process.
The UFCW said this inadequate pay and lack of documentation constitute unfair labor practices – and it’s on the basis of these unfair labor allegations that the UFCW had been preparing to strike this week. In addition, union spokesperson Miles Eshaia said Friday, the union is asking for substantial wage increases.
A spokesperson for Fred Meyer has said the company is following, and plans to continue to follow, applicable labor laws.
On Thursday, a sign at a North Portland Fred Meyer store read “Now hiring temporary associates,” and specifically asked for applicants willing to cross picket lines.
On Friday morning, a Fred Meyer statement provided to OPB confirmed that its stores affected by the strike, along with impacted QFC stores, remain open for customers. In the statement, Fred Meyer and QFC called the decision by UFCW Local 555 to strike “reckless.” The companies are are urging the union to “consider the full implications for its members heading into the holiday season.”
“At a time when we want to invest more than ever in wage increases and affordable health care, the UFCW has chosen disruption and the unknown for our associates and their families,” Dennis Gibson, president of Fred Meyer, said in the statement. “We value our associates and thank them for what they do every day for each other and our customers. We are committed to serving our customers, and our stores are open and stocked with fresh food and household essentials.”
According to Fred Meyer, it and QFC have proposed a total investment worth tens of millions of dollars for more than 5,000 associates covered under the union contract, including $36 million for additional wages, $30 million for annual contributions for health care benefits and $5 million for pensions.
“While we respect our associates’ rights to participate in this work stoppage, any associate who chooses to continue to work is welcome,” Gibson said in Friday’s statement. “We remain open to continuing to meet with the UFCW. Our associates would be better served if the UFCW worked with us to reach an agreement that does not leave our associates without a paycheck during the holidays.”
Outside of a Southeast Portland Fred Meyer Friday afternoon, a group of picketing workers were met with encouraging honks from cars — and from one fire truck — driving down Hawthorne Boulevard.
“Everybody needs better wages. It’s just not right what they’re doing. I didn’t know how much work went into being a cashier until I started working here and how hard it is,” said worker Nicole Rushing, who was standing outside the store. “People forget about us. They treat us like garbage.”
Two leaders of the Oregon Education Association, which represents Oregon teachers, joined the crowd to show support.
“We’re here because we support collective bargaining rights,” said Reed Scott-Schwalbach. “We support the ability of workers to come out and say, ‘We deserve something better.’”
Two years ago, UFCW workers also authorized a strike, but that time they reached an agreement without walking out. In that October 2019 conflict, the disagreement with grocery companies included Fred Meyer and QFC, but also Albertson’s and Safeway.
Aligned with the strike, mass picket events will begin at Portland area Fred Meyer stores Friday afternoon, with daily demonstrations planned through Thursday.
This week, with contract negotiations going on in Oregon, Kroger announced steps meant to encourage employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19. The company said it is no longer allowing unvaccinated workers at Fred Meyer and QFC stores to get up to two weeks of paid emergency leave if they get sick with COVID-19. They’ll have to use regular paid time off or take time off without being paid.
Vaccinated workers who get a breakthrough case will still get the special leave, and employees are still eligible for $100 for getting fully vaccinated.
OPB’s Kate Davidson contributed to this story.