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Grocery workers in the Washington, D.C., area have reversed concessionary bargaining in the industry for the first time in a generation. Last November 17,000 workers at Giant Food and Safeway stores ratified a contract that:
Members of Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 400 won these gains with an escalating contract campaign, ultimately demonstrating that they were willing to strike during the all-important Thanksgiving week.
In 1983, newly hired grocery workers in D.C. earned $6.95 an hour—more than twice the federal minimum wage at the time, and worth nearly $17 in today’s dollars. It took just two years to reach top pay of $10.44 an hour, worth $25.45 today.
“Back then you had to know someone to get hired at Safeway,” said Jibril Wallace, a Safeway file maintenance clerk in D.C. “My sister was my ticket to getting a job.”
But beginning in 1996, Local 400 agreed to create new tiers featuring lower pay and benefits in four of its next five contracts. By 2013, starting wages had plummeted to $7.60 an hour—a mere 35 cents above the federal minimum wage, and only 65 cents more than starting pay 30 years earlier.
By then the union had also given up its pay progression based on months of service. Instead workers progressed up the scale based on hours worked. Most part-time workers would not see the top rate of $14.50 for 10 years or longer.
This decline was hardly unique to Local 400. UFCW has done a poor job organizing regional nonunion competitors such as Food Lion and Harris Teeter and national ones such as Walmart and Whole Foods. We also failed to line up contracts across locals as our employers grew from regional chains to national and multinational corporations. And members weren’t active participants in contract fights.
The result has been a hollowing out of the union. Fewer and fewer members regarded grocery jobs as careers. By last year, fewer than 600 of the 17,000 members at Giant and Safeway were on the top tier. Almost 40 percent had been hired since the last contract negotiations.
But the union has begun to change direction since a new president took the helm in 2012.
To gain back the wages and benefits our predecessors bargained away, we will need to restore union density in the grocery industry. In the meantime, after stopping the bleeding with the 2013 contract, Local 400 leaders began to identify ways to blunt the impact of declining density before our next contract campaign.
One obvious way was to use our political power. The Giant-Safeway master agreement covers workers in higher-wage, closed-shop Maryland and D.C. as well as low-wage, right-to-work Virginia. A Republican legislative majority and state preemption law prevented us from raising the minimum wage in Virginia, so we decided to focus on D.C. and the Maryland counties that border it: Montgomery and Prince George’s.
Between 2014 and 2016, we partnered with union, community, and faith allies to win minimum wage increases in all three jurisdictions, along with paid sick days in D.C. and Montgomery County. Now a Safeway worker making $7.60 an hour in Alexandria, Virginia, could hop on a Metro train, ride one stop, and make $11.50 an hour at a store in D.C.
We believed this huge disparity created hiring and retention problems for Safeway and Giant. Our plan going into negotiations was to use those problems as leverage to lift wages higher in Virginia, too.
Our contract mobilization kicked off in summer 2016 with conferences that brought together nearly 300 Safeway and Giant stewards. They were tasked with turning out members for 12 big meetings held around the region, since traffic here is notorious.
More than 1,500 members attended the area meetings—the largest turnout of Giant and Safeway workers our local had ever recorded, outside of a contract ratification vote. They signed up for text-message alerts and took flyers to sign up their co-workers. These text alerts proved highly effective at cutting down on rumors and getting contract updates out.
“The mobilization meetings, as we called them, were really instrumental in setting the tone for the entire campaign,” said Beverly McFarland, a floral manager at Giant in Silver Spring, Maryland. “We reviewed Safeway and Giant’s financials and discussed bargaining demands. We left the meeting feeling united and ready for the fight.”
Union reps recruited 12 Giant and Safeway members to serve on the bargaining committee and 24 more for the contract action team (CAT). These members were released from work and paid by the union one day per week, but were also expected to volunteer additional time.
To communicate across this geographically dispersed team, we created a private Facebook group for members of the CAT and bargaining committee. The page quickly filled up with solidarity selfies and pictures of actions from stores around the region. With permission we shared the best photos on our public Local 400 page.
We launched the campaign with action to enforce our contract. One commonly violated provision required management to post the following week’s schedule every Friday by noon.
On a single day, CAT members, reps, and stewards executed simultaneous schedule checks in nearly half the Safeway and Giant stores in the region. More than half reported violations.
The online reporting form we set up for this (ufcw400.org/1pm) was so popular that we expanded it to allow members to report a variety of schedule violations. In fact, we still regularly receive submissions from grocery workers represented by other locals who stumble across it online.
The enforcement campaign gave members a huge morale boost. Many happily reported that their managers were now scrambling to make sure schedules were posted—and even informing stewards that they had the schedule up early!
Next came a series of actions to build solidarity. Workers joined group huddles to hear the latest contract updates, then marched on their bosses to deliver a petition supporting our contract demands. Members at different stores vied to see who could hold the largest in-store meeting.
And since many Local 400 members have longstanding relationships with their customers, they asked customers to sign cards supporting their fight. More than 5,000 signed.
Our efforts were aided by corporate disunity. For the first time anyone can remember, Giant and Safeway did not bargain together. We were able to play both sides off each other, while members stayed united across employers. Each CAT member’s turf included both companies.
The master contract expired on October 29. We agreed to extend it briefly, but not beyond Thanksgiving. This was something we had heard loud and clear during mobilization meetings. Members know how important Thanksgiving is to their employers, and correctly believed that the threat of disruption leading into the holiday would create a powerful incentive to settle.
During the extension we maintained our picketing but added a wrinkle: we took the picket line inside. A long line of workers and community allies snaked around the stores, chanting. Members who were working at the time loved it. Some even thought we were on strike and began shutting down their departments to join the “walkout.”
We also scheduled a vote on November 16, a week before Thanksgiving. Our message was simple: we would be voting on either a contract or a strike. We started circulating a public strike petition that surpassed 1,000 signatures on its first day.
On November 13, Safeway became the first company to settle. The next day bargaining committee member John Ruiz, a Safeway night crew captain, went to his store and took pictures of members holding handwritten signs expressing solidarity with Giant members, which we then shared on Facebook. Inspired by Ruiz, stewards from other Safeway stores began posting their own solidarity messages, lifting morale for the final push at Giant.
On November 15 we marched in and out of a shiny new Giant store in a rapidly gentrifying D.C. neighborhood. Our chants were echoing off the walls of the surrounding luxury condos, reporters were on their way, and rush-hour traffic was starting to snarl when Giant capitulated.
Members’ hard work paid off in a contract that replaced raises based on hours worked with raises every six months. Virginia members saw the largest gains: starting pay for a Safeway food clerk moved from $7.60 to $9.25 an hour, and $10 after completing a 90-day probation. Giant food clerks’ starting pay moved to $8.75, then to $9.25 on April 30, 2017, and $10 after six months on the job.
As proud as we are of our victories, there’s more to do. Legislative efforts can mask declining union density, but not solve it. We couldn’t improve the ratio of part-time to full-time workers. Although we eliminated two wage tiers, new hires still have far less generous health care and retirement benefits than top-tier members.
And management still has far too much control over staffing and scheduling. In the same jurisdictions that passed minimum wage increases and paid sick days, we’re exploring legislation for fairer hours.
We’re also looking to build campaigns to enforce our existing hours and scheduling language. Organizing and mobilizing cannot stop when a contract fight ends, and the leaders of our local are committed to making it a central part of our daily work.
Alan Hanson is the director of mobilization at UFCW Local 400 in Washington, D.C.