Can Grocery Workers Take Back Their Union?
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Author: Hamilton Nolan
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Working In These Times

On a gray October evening, half a dozen insurgents huddle around a table in an upscale diner across the street from Sea-Tac airport, considering their battle plans.

I don’t want to get shot in New Jersey or New York, and those guys will fucking murder us,” says the consigliere.

Yeah,” the boss muses. ​They will hella murder us.”

I’m more afraid of some people who have threatened to shoot us out here than those people out there,” says one of the generals.

The chances of us getting shot,” concludes the ringleader, ​are fairly high.” She smiles her omnipresent smile as she says this, to indicate it’s all in good fun. Pretty much. It’s definitely, mostly, sort of a joke. More or less. Her office window did get shot out not long ago. But … nobody said changing the world would be easy.

On February 6, 1919, 25,000 Seattle workers from more than 100 different unions walked out in support of 35,000 striking shipyard workers. It was global news. The city was momentarily paralyzed by the most comprehensive display of labor power that post-WWI America had seen.

On the wall of an exhibit about the strike at the Seattle Museum of History and Industry, a small label channels the thinking of the strikers: ​Where will this lead? To revolution? Power for workers? The truth is: Nobody knows where!”

A century later, the electrifying heart of Washington’s labor movement can be found in a three-story office building, next to a chiropractor and a Mexican restaurant, in the town of Des Moines, which lies along the bay about 15 miles south of downtown Seattle. There, in the lobby, ​educate, agitate, organize” is spelled out in neon blue cursive on the wall. A novelty claw machine holds little plastic bubbles containing bright yellow union T-shirts and beanies. This is the headquarters of United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) 3000.

With more than 50,000 members in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho — mostly grocery and healthcare workers, along with several thousand more in retail, meatpacking and public service — UFCW 3000 is the largest local in the million-member UFCW International. It is the model of an energetic, pugnacious, organizing union, growing labor’s influence steadily in one of America’s most concentrated areas of corporate power. But it is also — and, really, this is why I’m here — the epicenter of a great plot to root out the rotten elements holding back the UFCW, overthrow them, and revolutionize one of the biggest private-sector unions in the country, along with the labor movement itself. If you like scrappy bands of righteous pirates setting out on a grand caper with uncertain chances of success, well, here is the union world’s version.

The driving force behind UFCW 3000’s grand plans is Faye Guenther, the local’s 47-year-old president. She is mounting a 2028 run for UFCW International president. That will, ideally, be the culmination of a multiyear strategy of rallying member support across the country to build a mighty internal caucus that wants to sweep away long-entrenched leadership and make the union more democratic, more committed to new organizing, and more willing to strike — to make one of America’s biggest unions as ambitious to win the class war as Faye Guenther herself.

Guenther, who has curly blonde hair and glasses and a perpetual elvish grin playing on the corners of her lips, is notable for her willingness to say yes to any idea that will help the working class, no matter how difficult it might seem. She comes by her activism honestly. She grew up poor, in Oregon. Her father, whom Guenther suspects had undiagnosed mental health problems, was abusive. Her mother, who later was diagnosed with PTSD, left him when Guenther was a baby and traveled to eastern Oregon, eventually settling in tiny Spray, Ore., where her mom picked up work on ranches and farms. In his late 40s, her father had a brain aneurysm and died in Gulfport, Miss., where he was living unhoused. Guenther, his only next of kin, had to fly down and take him off life support.

With the help of a friendly science teacher, Guenther got into Oregon State University in Corvallis, making her one of the first women from her high school to go to college. She became deeply involved in campus activism. By the time she graduated, she had started a full-time job at the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence coordinating volunteers and helping domestic violence survivors, sure that she would be doing that for the rest of her life.

Then an AFL-CIO Organizing Institute recruiter, who had known Guenther as a campus activist, came and asked Guenther to join the labor movement. Her knee-jerk reaction, fueled by her impression of unions as undemocratic bureaucracies, was a strong hell no: ​The labor movement is fucked up; you guys are losers.” But the recruiter persisted. As Guenther thought more about the big picture, she reconsidered. 

I was working with women who, maybe seven out of 10 were returning back to their abusers, and almost every single one of them was for economic reasons,” Guenther says. ​Poor women, low-wage women don’t have a lot of options. I just felt like helping one person at a time wasn’t going to work. It wasn’t fast enough.”

Soon, she was hooked. She went to work organizing healthcare workers for Service Employees International Union in California and then for UFCW 1000 in Washington. After a few years, she made it back to Oregon, supervising organizers throughout a large part of the state. She left to go to law school at the University of Oregon before she was lured back to the union world at UFCW — with the promise that she could train to take over as the local’s attorney. Instead, she ended up running campaign after campaign, then became staff director, then secretary-treasurer, and then was elected president in 2019.

For the entire time that Guenther has been working for unions — more than two decades — she has been conscious of the ways her union was failing. She and her fellow organizers would go out for beers and grumble about the UFCW’s failure to invest in organizing and its disconnected international leadership.

Her own relationship with the leadership — particularly with Marc Perrone, the UFCW International’s president since 2014 — deteriorated. In 2020, when Covid-19 struck, UFCW found itself right in the middle of the crisis. Grocery workers were being pressured to continue working as the pandemic spread, and nurses who were UFCW 3000 members were forced to wear garbage bags and unsafe masks in the early days of the pandemic, because their hospital lacked sufficient PPE.

I got onto a phone call with Marc Perrone — he had these regional meetings — and I said, ​We need face masks, we need PPE, and we need it fast. Or 200,000 people could die by August.’ He said, ​Faye, let’s not be overly dramatic,’ ” Guenther remembers. ​I knew immediately that this person was completely out of touch.” By the end of August 2020, more than 183,000 Americans would die of Covid.

In 2022, Kroger and Albertsons announced their plan to merge, which would form the largest grocery chain in America. Such megamergers are almost always bad for workers, leading to layoffs, store closures and more
monopoly-type power for the corporation. The UFCW represented more than 300,000 workers at the two companies, but the union’s international leadership pointedly declined to announce its opposition to the merger,
releasing only a mealy-mouthed statement of concern, which indicated they thought there might be some opportunity for a deal with the companies.

Alarmed, Guenther and her team at UFCW 3000 pulled together a ​Stop the Merger” coalition of six other locals, along with dozens of community and labor groups, to agitate and lobby against the deal. The international did not decide to formally oppose the merger until May 2023, after a great deal of internal pressure.

It marked yet another public schism between the Marc Perrone and Faye Guenther wings of the union.

The internal politics of labor unions, though they often remain out of view, can be every bit as dramatic as any episode of Game of Thrones. By 2022, Guenther and her allies at UFCW 3000 had resolved to launch a reform effort inside UFCW, with an eye on pushing a slate of reforms at the union’s international convention in 2023.

The atmosphere was tense — Guenther describes it as ​open war.” The international union ended the $24,000 monthly subsidy that it had been giving to support the local’s organizing efforts, which Guenther interpreted as direct retaliation against her for her years of being a thorn in their side. A UFCW International spokesperson said that the end of the subsidy was not retaliatory and that ​the International Executive Board conducted an independent investigation by engaging an outside law firm to look into this very question and it concluded that no retaliation took place.” UFCW International did not respond to requests to interview Perrone for this story.

On Aug. 1, 2022, the local’s office in Seattle was broken into. The local later moved to its current office out in Des Moines, Wash., where Guenther arrived one day to find a bullet hole in her office window. It was still there when I visited: The bullet entered, ricocheted off the ceiling and made a hole in the wall, right over the couch where staffers sat during meetings. There is no evidence theseincidents were anything more than random crimes, but the combined effect was enough to make everyone’s hairs stand on end. As recently as 2018, a local UFCW officer in New York was indicted and charged with racketeering on behalf of the Genovese crime family.

Even if all of these things were coincidences, the atmosphere of tension that Local 3000’s leaders felt was very real. Faye Guenther is a driven person. She only got involved with the labor movement because she wants to change the world. Her fundamental frustration with the way UFCW as a whole was being run was that, despite having access to many resources, it seemed totally uninterested in that goal. Perrone boasted about the union’s financial strength, but its organizing budget had been cut under his leadership, and proposals at the 2023 convention to boost organizing spending were resoundingly voted down. Guenther was equally frustrated with other UFCW locals that seemed to exist as sinecures for their officers, rather than democratic, member-focused unions.

It’s a political inside club,” Guenther says. ​You get your regional directors and staff. You have no accountability to the membership.” At many locals, ​their boards are filled with staff. They vote themselves their raises. They don’t have organizing departments. They don’t mobilize their members … [and at the international], they’re not leading either. They’re not pulling people together. They’re not speaking out. They’re not exposing the problems. Because they all want to stay in power.”

Sam Dancy, 65, has seen a lot of union locals in his 33 years as a grocery worker at the Westwood Village QFC in Seattle. He’s been represented by three different ones through UFCW, traveled the country doing get-out-the-vote work for the union, and now serves as a member representative on the Local 3000 board. He says Local 3000 stands out for its transparency, its investment in members and its willingness to fight. Soon after coming in, the local won paid sick leave and more control over scheduling. In 2021, it successfully defended Dancy’s right to wear a Black Lives Matter pin.

In contrast to bloated officer salaries at other UFCW locals, Dancy says, ​We know where our money goes. … They make sure we have money for strike defense, money to help other people, money to organize.” That investment in new organizing, he says, is crucial to building ​strength in numbers.”

When I was growing up, there were unions — and there was a middle class. … Today, you just have the rich and the poor,” he says. ​Every single entity should be unionized. Everyone should have a voice.” Local 3000 is trying to be the change it wants to see. Matt Loveday, who was the local’s organizing director from 2020 until earlier this year, says that, from 2020 through 2023, the union added 2,738 members through new organizing. Those came in 45 separate campaign wins, 30 of which were National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections. Those are not staggering numbers, though they do reflect continual work by his staff of 10 organizers through the depths of the pandemic. What is staggering is that, according to Loveday, Local 3000 accounts for about 5% of the UFCW’s total membership but for more than 25% of its new organizing.

The average size of a UFCW [NLRB union election] filing is about 20, whereas the average size of one of our elections is in the mid-60s,” Loveday says. ​The UFCW win rate is very low. It’s lower than the national average. Our win rate is about 10 points higher than the national average. They could give you some BS about, ​Oh yeah, UFCW is one of the great organizing unions.’ But if you actually know what statistics to look at, it’s very, very poor.”

Todd Crosby, who preceded Guenther as Local 3000’s president and then served as the UFCW International’s organizing director until the end of 2022, saw the sharp difference between the organizing philosophies. Crosby says he brought Marc Perrone a plan for UFCW to build up to organizing 10,000 new workers per year, which Perrone rejected. Likewise, the goal of spending 20% of the international’s budget on organizing — $40 million a year — was never taken seriously.

Perrone hasn’t gotten even a quarter of the way there in his 10 years,” Crosby says.

A UFCW International spokesperson disputed these figures, saying, ​The numbers you cite are categorically false. While, like many unions, our organizing activity went down during the pandemic, we doubled our amount of organizing victories from 2021 to 2022, [and] have surpassed that in 2023.” The union also said it devotes ​more than 20% of our budget to organizing” but refused to share any specific details.

Crosby stood by his assertions about the flaws in the union’s organizing strategy and budget, and he expressed skepticism about the UFCW International’s denials: ​What gets included in the 20%? That’s the devil in the details. Is it 20% of staff? Do those staff actually work on organizing full-time? Does it include comms and political? That has never been clarified.” Crosby adds: ​It is true that the organizing department budget and actual expenditures went up in 2021 and 2022. That’s because both the pandemic and the shift of resources to the presidential election brought the budget/​expenditures [in 2020] to almost zero.”

Guenther told me her own vision for a UFCW that hired hundreds of new organizers and won coordinated national contracts to transform the entire grocery industry. Local 3000’s secretary-treasurer Joe Mizrahi, Guenther’s closest ally and consigliere, can rattle off detailed plans to organize 30,000 cannabis workers and unionize Whole Foods as an entry point to Amazon. To make those ambitions a reality, though, means making the UFCW International act more like Local 3000.

Last year, Mizrahi and Guenther resolved to make reforming the UFCW a reality. They pulled together a reform slate, headed by Guenther, as well as a host of resolutions and constitutional amendments to propose at the convention. Most meaningful was one to institute a ​one member, one vote” structure that would shift power at UFCW away from insider delegates and toward members — a reform that has been integral to overthrowing entrenched leadership teams at other unions like the Teamsters and United Auto Workers (UAW) in recent years.

They also proposed limiting the salary of any local officer in the union to $250,000 per year. This measure sounds modest, until you learn that 30 of the UFCW’s 74 local presidents in 2023 were paid more than that, including three who were paid more than half a million dollars. When Crosby served as the UFCW International’s organizing director, he made it a point to cut subsidies to locals who paid their officers more than $300,000 a year — to send the signal ​that money existed in the local for organizing. It was just misallocated to the president’s salary.”

Eventually, Crosby says, those locals just started going around him and appealing directly to Perrone. (Guenther is paid less than $200,000, and Local 3000’s elected 48-person executive board consists of 45 members and three officers.)

The reformers made their voices heard — loudly — at the UFCW convention in April, but they were defeated on the floor, as they knew they would be. It was a first step.

Now, the same band of true believers are plotting to spend the years leading up to the next convention on a bootstrapped national campaign designed to refashion the entire million-member union in UFCW 3000’s image: democratic, aggressively organizing, and rooted in social justice.

First, Seattle. Next, everywhere.

Puget Sound’s perpetual gloomy mist wafted through the air on an early Tuesday morning in October 2023, but inside UFCW 3000’s office, everything felt electric. Dozens of staffers from across the local’s sprawling territory crowded into a large conference room for the biannual all-staff meeting. This one was about more than just the normal campaign and budget updates; if there is going to be a revolution inside the UFCW, it will start with the people in this room, many of whom are veterans of the 2023 convention reform fight.

We know that we are, in my humble opinion, in a fight over the soul of UFCW,” Guenther told them. ​We’re in a fight for the soul of the labor movement.” Many of the staffers in the room had helped with the reform effort and attended the convention themselves, bearing witness to the jeers and cold shoulders that showed just how hard the road ahead would be.

Guenther noted the president of one of the other locals, who had been an ally, had just died; one of her deputies was attending his funeral that same day. Whether that local would remain an ally was an open question.

We cannot rely on individual or fragile partnerships to reform UFCW,” Guenther said. ​We must create a movement of members — not of elected leaders, of members — who want a different kind of union.” The UFCW’s membership had sunk below where it was when she joined the union world in 1999, and she wanted everyone who worked for her to feel the urgency of that crisis: ​How do you build power for low-wage workers — for grocery store workers, for food packing and processing workers, for cannabis workers? How do you build power when you’re sinking like a stone? How do you do that? I don’t know. You can’t! So we have to do something different.”

UFCW 3000, with more than 50,000 members and a pugnacious attitude, always has plenty of fights on its plate. On top of that, they are committed to getting bigger. When I asked Katie Garrow — head of MLK Labor, the central labor council for the Seattle area — about where UFCW 3000 sat in the union landscape, she immediately replied: ​Their investment in organizing is like a model for the whole labor movement. … UFCW 3000 stands as a shining example of the call to action right now, to invest in external organizing.”

During the week I spent with them, UFCW 3000 was also preparing for not one, but two, potential strikes. On Monday, Guenther, Mizrahi and several staffers crammed around a laminated table in the back corner of a teriyaki restaurant to talk through a looming strike at Macy’s, where members were fed up with low wages. On Thursday, staffers were camped out in a tiny break room at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, 30 miles north of Seattle, where a thousand nurses were taking a strike vote, which came in at 97% yes. (Providence workers ended up striking for five days; Macy’s workers for nine.)

Meanwhile, Guenther and Mizrahi spent Thursday and Friday at an airport motel in the midst of contract negotiations. Mizrahi was also working to arrange another meeting with Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan regarding the Kroger merger. (The meetings would pay off: In February, the FTC sued to block the deal.) Rite Aid, where Local 3000 had members, had just declared bankruptcy. On top of those things, and the staff meeting, the Israeli bombardment of Gaza had begun, and Guenther and her staff sat in on a Zoom call of labor activists discussing the issue, then added UFCW 3000’s name to the then very short list of unions demanding a cease-fire.

There was nothing about this river of work that would motivate any normal person to voluntarily undertake, in addition, a years-long project to reform a hostile and intransigent union. The motivation was ideology. The motivation was that Guenther and her allies believe the union must be better, and their work is not done until it is.

After contract negotiations concluded one night, they migrated to that upscale diner by the airport to sketch out their battle plans. Guenther whipped out a piece of paper, sectioned it off into years, and began filling in what needed to be done: 2024, 2025 and 2026 would be for building a national base of support among members of other locals, while 2027 and 2028 would be spent training reform delegates to flood the next UFCW convention. Each year, they planned on picking three or four cities to target — geographically dispersed places with UFCW locals that had members enthusiastic for reform and leaders who were not. Those cities would be the sweet spots, where the evangelistic message of democratic unionism could most easily take root.

This plan drew on the playbooks of two other internal union reform efforts: Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) and Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD). Guenther and her members have attended TDU conventions to learn.

UAWD, whose fight for union democracy led to the election of crusading new UAW President Shawn Fain, accomplished its task in only four years, proof that revolutions can happen fast.

Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian and professor at University of California Santa Barbara, notes that both the Teamsters and the UAW only instituted ​one member, one vote” reforms after they were forced to in the wake of corruption investigations. The Teamsters did it in 1989 in response to a racketeering case after 13 years of agitation by reformers. The UAW made the reform in 2021 after a settlement with the Justice Department, laying the groundwork for Fain’s rise.

The Teamsters union is actually a more decentralized union than [the UAW],” Lichtenstein notes, which accounts, in part, for TDU’s more arduous path to success. The UFCW, too, is decentralized — and there is no imminent corruption settlement to force the voting reform that seems key to defeating its incumbent leadership. But Lichtenstein points out that other unions, including the United Steelworkers, have implemented ​one member, one vote” systems without a corruption scandal. There is no reason to imagine that UFCW cannot change itself without the government forcing the issue.

Guenther and her allies began kicking around targets for early 2024. Chicago? Phoenix? Boston? Perhaps Kansas, Ohio or New Jersey? And what about Canada? The scale was intimidating. Then there were the logistical concerns. Carrying out this plan would mean everyone involved spent the next several years using their spare time to fly around the country to meet with workers and recruit them. Guenther said anyone who wanted to be on the slate with her could have one week of vacation per year but would be expected to use the rest of their vacation days visiting workers. They needed fundraising. A comms team. These things were briskly ticked off — not as obstacles, but as to-dos. (By early 2024, they had lawyers forming a new organization to house the effort, and they were focused on recruiting dozens of UFCW members to meet up at the Labor Notes convention in April, where they would decide their list of target cities.)

They discussed some more exotic possible tactics as well. One idea was to rally support to call a ​special convention,” where they could force a formal consideration of one member, one vote. Even if the international leadership blocked the measure from passing, it could be a good way to draw attention to the fact that those leaders were insulating themselves from the will of the membership.

Another idea, which Mizrahi referred to as the ​nuclear option,” would be for Local 3000 to pursue a full disaffiliation from the UFCW — the union equivalent of California seceding from the United States. In this scenario, the local would declare UFCW to be irredeemably broken and ask members to allow them to become a standalone union dedicated to new organizing and union democracy. This is, to be clear, a far-fetched plan, because the UFCW’s constitution makes it difficult, but introducing it as a possibility could give the reformers leverage.

It is not hard to see its appeal. Among other things, Mizrahi said, Local 3000 could stop sending $800,000 per month to the UFCW International. ​We could have another 80 staff,” he said. ​Picture that we had the staff that you saw in that meeting, plus 80 organizers. What would that look like?”

It would look like the labor movement’s dream fully unleashed. What makes UFCW 3000 so remarkable is that it combines all of the real, existing, hard-won characteristics of a strong democratic union — a member-led board, national political influence, a willingness to tangle with multibillion-dollar corporations — with an additional, exceedingly rare determination to follow a purist ideology of labor solidarity wherever it leads.

Usually, it leads into new and bigger battles.

Faye Guenther does not need to pledge the next four years of her life to a fight to reform her heartbreakingly ossified international union. It is a fight that will be wearying and expensive. It will make her unpopular in important places. Its odds of success are uncertain. But for all the time she has invested in planning how the fight should be carried out, she has never seemed to question whether it must be done.

Being an island does not build power,” Guenther says. ​You’re always on the defense. We need to go on the offense. We need to go.”

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