Above photo: UFCW Convention 2018.
Next April, 1,200 delegates from the Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) will gather in Las Vegas for the union’s international convention. A new reform group, Essential Workers for a Democratic UFCW, is gearing up for a fight.
The group describes itself as a coalition of rank and filers, local leaders, and not-yet-union workers. Drawing inspiration from the caucuses that have recently won landmark reforms in the Teamsters and Auto Workers, it is pushing for change in three areas: union democracy, new organizing, and coordinated bargaining.
The reform group is encouraging rank-and-file supporters to run for convention delegate on its platform.
The effort has its strongest public backing from the union’s largest local: Local 3000, formed this year by merging Locals 21 and 1439. It represents 50,000 grocery, health care, retail, and other workers in Washington state and parts of Oregon and Idaho. The local’s executive board unanimously voted to support the resolutions, and has released statements from members supporting the effort.
But supporters of its slate of resolutions will face an uphill battle to get them passed on the convention floor, where delegates will consider resolutions and elect new international officers.
President Marc Perrone is expected to oppose the reforms. He has already announced a slate for the union’s executive board, “Members First.” Essential Workers for a Democratic UFCW has not said whether it will run its own slate of candidates.
Faye Guenther, president of Local 3000, is the most prominent backer of the new group. She says the new organizing wave at big employers like Starbucks and Amazon, and particularly at retail and grocery employers like Home Depot, New Seasons, and MOM’s Organic Markets, signals the need for reform.
Although grocery is UFCW’s core jurisdiction, much of this recent flurry of organizing is instead with newly formed independent unions.
“UFCW could be this vibrant, militant, worker-centered union,” Guenther said. “Everybody would want to flock to UFCW and join a fighting union that is strategic but strikes when it needs to.”
To get there, she said, the union needs to change.
Grocery Profits Soaring
There are 1.5 million retail grocery workers in the U.S. Around half of them belong to the UFCW, which has 835,000 grocery members in the U.S. and Canada. Grocery workers represent more than two-thirds of the union’s total membership.
Two other unions represent tens of thousands of grocery workers: the Teamsters, primarily in warehousing and distribution, and the Bakery Workers (BCTGM), in grocery bakeries.
Grocery company profits in 2020 and 2021 were the highest since at least the 1980s, according to the Food Industry Association. Sales have boomed throughout the pandemic—an initial surge of 28 percent from February to March 2020 settled out to a sustained 22 percent increase, as people ate more of their meals at home.
Temporary hazard pay raises briefly became the norm. By the end of March 2020, Kroger, Albertsons, and Costco had added $2 an hour and a few lump-sum bonuses. Stop & Shop gave workers a 10 percent raise.
But the honeymoon lasted only a few months. By July, wages were back down.
“When the pandemic first started, Kroger made a big deal about us being heroes,” said Kevin Lowery, a 20-year produce worker at Kroger-owned King Soopers in Littleton, Colorado. “Now they act like the pandemic doesn’t exist.”
The big employers clawed back the pandemic benefits, and inflation overtook other gains. Grocery workers’ average wages have increased 12 percent since 2019—lagging behind inflation, which has increased more than 15 percent over the same period.
Push for Direct Democracy
On its website, Essential Workers for a Democratic UFCW lays out 11 resolutions designed to “transform the UFCW International into the union that essential workers need and deserve.”
One calls for “one member, one vote” elections for the union’s top two positions, president and secretary-treasurer, rather than the current system where they are elected by convention delegates.
The UFCW executive board is made up of five top officers—the president, the secretary-treasurer, and three executive vice presidents—plus 50 additional vice presidents.
Other resolutions would expand the executive board to include at least two rank-and-file members from each of the union’s seven regions, and limit the number of union staff on the board to the five top officers.
The union constitution mandates only that half of the vice presidents “shall not be in the primary employment of the International Union,” i.e., not international union staff. Right now, 13 of them draw full-time salaries from the international, according to the union’s most recent filings with the Department of Labor.
The reformers also seek to establish a Health Care Division, which would mean funding for research and strategic planning in that sector; UFCW represents around 55,000 health care workers.
Currently the union’s divisions are Retail, which is mainly grocery but also includes 118,000 workers in other types of stores; Food Processing, Packing and Manufacturing, which includes 250,000 workers in meatpacking and food processing plants; Distillery, Wine and Allied Workers, with 5,000 workers; and the newest division, Cannabis, with 10,000 workers.
Invest in Organizing
Another resolution calls for the union to invest $100 million in new organizing and an additional $100 million in coordinated bargaining, and to create a five-year strategic plan.
The UFCW has lost 225,000 members over the past 20 years, a 15 percent decline.
Union density is high at some of the larger chains—70 percent at Albertsons, 65 percent at Kroger. But there are few master agreements. Wages and benefits diverge widely, even within individual companies.
Take Kroger, for instance. It’s one of the largest private sector employers in the country, employing 420,000 workers. A majority are union members, covered under approximately 310 collective bargaining agreements—all with their own timelines, pay scales, benefits, and work rules.
Kroger has long used this fractured bargaining environment to its advantage, making low wages the norm. A survey of 36,000 Kroger workers in the Western U.S. found that retail grocery workers’ average annual earnings were less than $30,000. In the South, the pay is likely even lower.
The report found, “The living and working conditions of Kroger workers have declined markedly over the past 20 years. Kroger’s current low-wage, part-time workforce strategy relies on poorly paid, part-time workers with constantly changing schedules.”
A just-announced merger between Albertsons and Kroger could allow the new grocery giant to use its monopoly power to raise prices and close hundreds of stores. The new reform group is pushing for the union to take a stronger stand against it. (See box.)
In October, Kroger announced it had a deal to acquire Albertsons for $24.6 billion. Each company already owns many grocery chains gobbled up in previous mergers. The merged mega-grocer would control an estimated 13 percent of the U.S. grocery market, second only to Walmart in market share.
The two chains together employ more than 700,000 workers, including 400,000 UFCW members. Analysts say the consolidation could result in the closure of hundreds of stores, which could mean mass layoffs.
The merger includes a plan to spin off up to 375 stores into a new company, as a weak gesture towards antitrust concerns. But despite such measures, corporate mergers tend to lead to higher prices for consumers.
The International UFCW expressed concerns about the deal’s “serious implications” but stopped short of coming out against the deal.
In contrast, five locals (Locals 3000 and 367 in Washington, Locals 324 and 770 in California, and Local 7 in Colorado) released a joint statement saying it “must be stopped.” A separate statement from Local 400, representing 20,000 affected workers in the D.C. area, called on the Federal Trade Commission to intervene.
Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are also urging the FTC to block the merger, calling it “anticompetitive and anti-worker.”
Essential Workers for a Democratic UFCW has launched a petition to the top leaders of the UFCW demanding that the union oppose the deal.
Though the merger isn’t expected to be finalized until 2024, the deal includes a provision for Albertsons to pay out a “special dividend” of $4 billion to stockholders on November 7. A bipartisan group of Attorneys General from five states and D.C. is moving to block the payout, urging more time for legal review.
The payout would put the already troubled Albertsons in a much worse financial position, potentially threatening workers’ pensions. Local 5 in Northern California announced its opposition to the dividend payout.
In late October, UFCW international brought local presidents and secretary-treasurers together in Chicago to discuss the merger.
According to people present, international leaders tried to make them sign non-disclosure agreements as a condition of entry—but some refused, and the international backed off. The outcome of the meeting was unclear.
West Coast Model
The push for coordinated bargaining is particularly resonant with Local 3000 and a group of Western locals that have been pushing in that direction. Last year, eight locals in Washington, Oregon, California, and Colorado took steps to coordinate their bargaining, covering 100,000 grocery workers.
They held cross-local organizing calls, organized and helped release the survey mentioned above, and prepared to support one another on the picket lines.
In January, when the first big contract was up, 8,000 workers in Colorado went on strike with UFCW Local 7, and set an informal pattern of raises across the allied locals.
“The West Coast united bargaining was a model,” says Guenther. “That was a coalition of the willing… We bound ourselves together, put money in a pot, we paid for research, for joint field work. That is a model that works. If it were embraced and allowed to flourish, we could’ve had a national Kroger strategy.
“It’s not that hard. There is hope. But if there’s not a structural change it’ll just be the coalition of the willing coming together.”
No Means No
The group also wants reforms to the union’s strike authorization process—in particular to remove the “two-thirds rule,” which requires a two-to-one vote to authorize or continue a strike.
Six weeks into the 2021 strike at the Heaven Hill distillery, for example, workers voted 54 percent to reject a contract offer, but under the two-thirds rule it was declared ratified anyway.
Other resolutions would establish a Workers’ Safety Taskforce, a Climate Change Taskforce, and a Civil Rights Commission. The UFCW already has an Occupational Safety and Health Office and a Civil Rights and Community Action Department.
“We hope that the current leadership adopts this full platform and fully embraces it,” Guenther said. “If that does not happen, we hope that a group of people decide to adopt this reform and move it at the convention.”
Kyong Barry, a 20-year grocery worker and member of the Local 3000 executive board, hopes these reforms will change how rank-and-file members relate to their union.
“I think the way it’s done now, maybe the rank and file feel like they don’t have a say,” Barry said. “They don’t get involved because they feel like, ‘Oh, it’s always done this way.’”
She hopes the reforms will make members think,“‘Hey, wait—I can vote. My voice makes a difference.’ So we could get more rank-and-file members excited, more involved. They could take ownership of their union.”
Barry has twice served as a delegate to the UFCW convention, in 2008 and 2018. As she recalls, delegates were less likely to be rank-and-file members, and more likely to be paid union staff.
“You’d see their delegate badge—where mine would say Albertsons, theirs would say UFCW.”
She also noticed a demographic divide: “It was a lot of older members in the leadership. It just wasn’t what you see in your workplace, the faces. That, I think, leaves a lot of people out, checked out. Making these changes really will help get more younger people involved, more people of color.”
Taking the Long View
One challenge the group faces is that it only has six months to prepare before the convention, and some delegate elections are already underway.
Local presidents are automatic delegates to the convention, under the UFCW constitution. So are secretary-treasurers, if a local is big enough to get more than one delegate. (Local officers used to be automatic convention delegates in the Teamsters, too, until 1991, when reformers won the right for all delegates to be elected by the rank and file.)
In Local 1000, which has about 10,000 members in the Dallas area, the leadership organized a vote on a proposal to reduce the number of delegates the local would send to the convention from 15 to two, with those two delegates having the weighted votes of the full delegation for any recorded votes. The proposal passed with very low turnout.
Another challenge will be connecting the national reform push to the core shop floor issues that workers are facing, especially in weak locals.
How much the new group can win will probably depend on how broad a group of members takes up the reform push over the next few months and runs with it.
But Guenther takes a long view. “We are going to win something at the convention,” she said. “There are opportunities to win something between conventions, and there is another five years down the road. We are in this to win.”