Essential Workers for a Democratic UFCW

Employee activism has become more and more prevalent in recent years, a fire that was lit during COVID-19 pandemic, when workers believed employers were not taking employee voices into account. Employees wanted more input on decisions that impacted their work schedules, health and safety, and compensation. Today, employee needs have grown, to include work-life balance, family plan benefits, diversity and inclusion, and other areas of interest. 

In a twist, employee activism has recently morphed into union member activism within unions, and supermarkets and grocery store workers are leading the way. The Essential Workers for a Democratic UFCW are rebelling against the UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers) International Union, demanding a rank-and-file voice in decision-making and more effective leadership

An Industry Primed for Union Organizing  

Baristas at Starbucks, warehouse workers at Amazon, tech workers at the New York Times, graduate students at colleges and universities, hospitals, video game workers at Activision, office workers, and thousands of other employees have chosen to join a union over the last 18 months, per the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). However, some industries saw the number of union jobs shrink, including manufacturingtransportation and warehousing, construction, and retail. Included in retail are supermarkets and grocery stores, a sector fraught with issues like a labor shortage, customers who take their frustrations over food shortages out on employees (sometimes violently), low wages, frequently changing work schedules, and minimal or no benefits. Supermarkets and grocery retailers are ripe for unionizing - but  workers don't particularly align with the union values, which is why the Essential Workers for a Democratic UFCW was formed.  

The members of the Essential Workers believe UFCW leadership needs to do more to represent its members or attract new ones, and they want to reform the union. According to the UFCW, the union represents 835,000 grocery store workers at major chains that include Kroger, Ahold Delhaize, Safeway, Giant, and Kroger, but there are also members working at smaller and independent grocery stores. On the UFCW's website, they quote the Bureau of Labor Statistics as having stated that frontline grocery workers’ real hourly wages decreased by 7 percent over the last 25 years, and only 42 percent of companies in the retail business offer health benefits. 

The industry conditions are ideal for the UFCW and other labor unions to increase union membership in the supermarkets and grocery stores sectors. The pandemic highlighted grocery workers as essential workers who risked their health and safety to keep the economy going. The Essential Workers for a Democratic UCFW believe the time is right for reform as society recognizes the importance of grocery workers. But disillusion with the UFCW has inspired some grocery workers to form independent unions. Employees at Trader Joe’s store in Hadley, MA, voted to be represented by Trader Joe’s United, which is not affiliated with a traditional union. There is also increased union organizing taking place store-by-store, similar to what is happening at Starbucks. A case in point is the employees at two of MOM’s Organic Market stores have voted to join the Teamsters 

Breaking Ranks 

One of the reasons labor unions succeed is because they project a culture of support and unity, thus their slogans that use words like “brothers and sisters," “together,” and “collective worker power.” The Essential Workers for a Democratic UFCW is a coalition of local UFCW leaders, rank-and-file UFCW members, and yet-to-be organized workers who want the UFCW to be held accountable to its membership. It is a group within the UFCW that says it doesn’t like the fact that the UCFW has:  

  • Decreased spending on critical union organizing campaigns 
  • Discouraged coordination of important bargaining campaigns 
  • Invested large amounts of money in the stock market, diverting funds from organizing efforts  

When conversing with employees about labor unions, one of the important talking points for employers is often whether employees understand how labor unions spend union dues. In the large traditional labor unions, union officials are free to spend the members' dues money however they want. and the Essential Workers for a Democratic UFCW clearly believe their money is not being spent for the benefit of the organization's members. 

The Essential Workers are similar to the caucuses that form in the House of Representatives. Those who believe the representatives in charge of their political party are making poor decisions form identity groups to exert influence and gain a voice among the larger group. It is a way for organizational members to break ranks without leaving the group and strive to get their agenda recognized and implemented. The Essential Workers make it clear they believe the UFCW International Union’s executive board has abused its power for its own benefit.   

What Do the Essential Workers for a Democratic UFCW Want? 

Like many splinter groups, the Essential Workers want a more radical agenda adopted and are focused on an upcoming April 2023 UFCW convention in Las Vegas as an ideal time to gain support. There is a recruiting effort to convince union members to vote for members of the Essential Workers as convention delegates. The union’s largest local is Local 3000, which represents 50,000 grocery, retail, healthcare, and other workers in Washington state and parts of Idaho and Oregon. Local 3000, led by Faye Guenther, strongly backs the Essential Workers group and is very vocal about the need for change.  

On its website, Local 3000 posted statements by various Local 3000 members who support the reform movement. For example, Kyong Barry at an Algona Albertsons/Safeway and Amy Dayley Angell at a Seattle QFC (Pacific Northwest supermarket chain) said, “Racial inequity, sexism, violent attacks on workers on the job – all this is unacceptable. Our union can be a force for reform, but we need democratic reforms at the UFCW International level to better grow our union and be there for all essential workers. We need these reforms to take on big issues of equity, and safety.” It’s apparent there are many issues. What does change look like for the Essential Workers for a Democratic UFCW?  

  • One member, one vote elections for the UFCW president and secretary-treasurer (thus the word “Democratic” in the group’s name) 
  • The UFCW executive board to include a minimum of two rank-and-file members from each of the UFCW’s seven regions. 
  • Have no more than two top UFCW top officers on the UFCW executive board 
  • Establish a Health Care Division requiring funding for research and strategic planning in the healthcare sector 
  • Require the UFCW to invest $100 million in new union organizing efforts 
  • Require the UFCW to invest $100 million in coordinated union collective bargaining 
  • Develop a five-year strategic plan to counter corporate power  
  • Eliminate the requirement for a two-to-one vote to authorize or continue a strike and let a majority membership vote rule 
  • Establish several taskforces, like the Workers’ Safety Taskforce and a Climate Change Taskforce, and a Civil Rights Commission  

Coordinated union bargaining usually means the union would work towards developing master contracts, meaning a single agreement would apply to multiple locals. Right now, there aren’t many UFCW master collective bargaining agreements. Instead, it is more like what is happening at Starbucks. Each local negotiates its own collective bargaining contract. When a grocery chain like Kroger’s has hundreds of thousands of workers in numerous stores, this adds up to hundreds of collective bargaining agreements with different stipulations.  

Union locals have banded together on the West Coast to pressure employers. UFCW Local 7 workers went on strike at Kroger’s King Soopers/City Market and were joined by 8,000 workers in Colorado. The strike lasted eight days and included the participation of unionized workers at 78 grocery stores across Colorado. The strike was scheduled to last three weeks but ended sooner when a tentative bargaining agreement was reached. One of the consequences of thousands of union workers supporting those going on strike is that other union locals will expect similar contract terms. King Soopers/City Market agreed to a 22 percent pay hike on average, one-time ratification bonuses, continued contributions of $29.3 million to a pension plan, and a $6 million increase in healthcare benefits.  

Similarly, UFCW Local 5 on the west coast joined forces with local unions in Washington State, Colorado, and throughout California to pressure Safeway and Save Mart/Lucky employers. The union representatives canvassed stores, signed up members to receive text blasts, and discussed striking. Various locals also staged demonstrations to gain Safeway customers’ support for a strike or boycott. UFCW Locals 5, 8, and 648 agreed on a new three-year contract without a strike.  

essential workers grocery

Politics in the Labor Union 

The Essential Workers for a Democratic UFCW proudly state they are militant, a warning for both the UFCW and employers in the supermarket and grocery sector. What can be learned from the Essential Workers going forward into 2023 and beyond?  

  • The Essential Workers believe in the power of strikes which is why they want to eliminate the two-thirds rule and let a majority vote rule (they resent the fact that the UFCW rarely calls for strikes and has made striking difficult in the UFCW International Constitution by keeping control of the right to strike) 
  • The resolution item that wants a task force on climate change and civil rights is an indication of how union members are focused on much more than factors like compensation and health insurance. 
  • There will surely be more uniting of local unions to apply pressure on employers, and this tactic will extend beyond the grocery sector. 
  • The big labor unions are facing much pushback from members who want leadership accountability.  
  • A member noted that the UFCW leaders are older and didn’t reflect the workforce, an insight into the fact that the younger generation of workers is ready to get more actively involved.  
  • Guenther (Local 3000) said the Essential Workers will win something at the convention and will win more going forward, sending a message that the splinter group hopes to grow and gain more influence. 
  • The traditional issues of labor unions are still important because they are NLRA rights, like wage increases, benefits, workplace safety, schedules, etc., but they are broader today, i.e., hazard pay, work-life balance, social justice, income equality across workplaces and among diverse employee groups, and more. 
  • Having a voice is of absolutely critical importance to employees today, in their unions and the workplace. 
  • Employee activists are holding everyone in power accountable, whether it’s a union leader or union executive board, or their employer’s managers and supervisors. 
  • Grocery workers see 2023 as an opportune time for a stronger organizing effort. 

One of the threats perceived by labor unions is the increasing consolidation of large grocery chains. Kroger and Albertsons is the latest proposed merger, and it will likely take until sometime in 2024 to complete. Mergers can lead to the selling and closing of stores and staff reductions. However, the unions also see the grocery chain consolidations as an increase in employer power at the bargaining table or when trying to prevent union organizing. If one store goes on strike or workers walk out in protest, the financial impact is less severe in a large grocery chain than in an independent grocer.   

The UCFW framed its concerns about the Kroger-Albertsons merger first in terms of the impact on consumers and grocery prices and the threat to farmers and then added the threat to jobs, wages and benefits. This reflects the trend in labor unions to embrace social activism because it appeals to younger employees in general.   

The Art of Labor Relations CTA

Prepare for More Aggressive Union Organizing  

The supermarket and grocery/retail market employees include stock clerks, order fillers, cashiers, food preparers, meat cutters, warehouse workers, truck drivers, and many more. There is plenty of opportunity for labor unions to grow membership in this industry, as the Essential Workers for a Democratic UFCW recognize. There are also many issues the labor unions see as talking points, including post-pandemic procedures from a safety viewpoint, low wages, benefits for all employees, reliable work schedules, job security, and employee voice.   

The largest employee group in the UFCW’s membership is grocery store workers, but the labor union has other groups that include employees in the growing cannabis industry, health care, retail, beef and pork packing and processing, distillery and wine, and general retail industries. Even if the Essential Workers cannot get their resolutions approved at the UFCW International Union’s convention, the executive board has been put on notice that many of its members expect a much stronger union organizing effort and better use of union dues.  

As an employer in the supermarket and grocery industry, your focus should be on evaluating the same issues of union focus within your workforce, strengthening employee engagement and employee voice, and taking other steps to prevent union organizing. Despite more aggressive union organizing efforts, becoming a unionized workplace is not inevitable. The key to success will be preparing NOW for activism and more aggressive UFCW organizing efforts. If you need support, IRI Consultants has the knowledge and expertise to help your organization succeed in making unions unnecessary.

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