Thursday, September 27, 2012

UNFI, the Teamsters, a Strike and the Co-op

It's 5AM at the Co-op when a big semi maneuvers through our tiny parking lot and backs slowly up to our warehouse. The warehouse door rolls up with a loud clack and clattering as the earliest of the co-op's workers - our delivery crew - set down their coffee cups (or tea) and get ready to begin their day. They'll spend the next several hours unwrapping pallets of groceries and wheeling them out in big stacks to the retail floor. Before the store opens, volunteers arrive to begin breaking down the piles and putting the products on the shelves. At 8AM, the first shoppers will wend their way through the last of the delivery as they pick up their own morning coffee, and the box corral will be overflowing with fresh boxes.

If you drove by the Co-op in the early morning (long before dawn in the winter) this is a scene you'd see repeated three times a week at our Eastside store, and twice at the Westside. The orders are from United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI), one of our main distributors. Earlier this month, Teamsters Local 117 workers at our local UNFI warehouse voted to strike after contract negotiations stalled. We began working on our response right away.

If you haven't worked in a retail environment, you may not know what exactly a distributor does. Basically, UNFI gets products from many different natural food companies and stores them in a big warehouse. That way, we can place one order to UNFI and get items from a hundred companies, rather than placing 100 individual orders and receiving 100 shipments.

UNFI is only one of many, many distributors and direct suppliers that the Co-op works with. We buy produce, meat and cheese, and bulk items from other distributors and, most importantly, we work directly with local farmers and producers. But UNFI is the biggest single distributor that we work with.

So when we heard about the Teamsters' vote to authorize a strike, we knew we needed to get to work fast. The authorizing vote is just the first step in a strike. When the strike actually begins is known only to the workers planning the action. (If bargaining goes well, the strike may never happen.) Knowing that the strike was a possibility, we formed a committee and got to work.

Our mission at the Olympia Food Co-op is broad. In addition to making "good food accessible to more people" we "support efforts to foster a socially and economically egalitarian society." It's a tall order for a little co-op, but it guides the choices we make all the way from which products to stock on our shelves to how we organize our workforce.

When it comes to this strike, we knew we were going to support the Teamsters. Besides being the right thing to do, we've known some of the workers at UNFI for years. Some of them have worked at the Auburn warehouse since before UNFI was formed by the co-op's earlier supplier, Mountain People's Warehouse.

News from the Teamsters has been disheartening. Although the strike hasn't begun and UNFI and the Teamsters have been in mediation together, UNFI has erected fences around the warehouse and sent threatening letters home to the workers' families. They immediately lowered workers' pay by ceasing overtime. More recently, they published an ad on for 170 replacement workers and then held a job fair for the new workers in the warehouse as an intimidation tactic.

UNFI wants to force workers to adopt demanding production standards that create a dangerous work environment. They insist that workers receive wages and benefits that are 25% lower than local industry standards, while removing retirement protections. They want to replace sick days with seven "personal days", half of which must be scheduled at least 48 hours in advance - essentially forcing workers to take unpaid sick days. 

Meanwhile, UNFI's most recent financial statements state that their income for the fourth quarter of fiscal 2012 increased by $4.2 million, or 20.1%. 

Our first step is to let our members know that the strike is a possibility and ask for your help! If you feel strongly about fair pay and safe working environments, we urge you to contact UNFI directly to tell them to deal fairly with their workforce! (Contact info is copied below, and we'll also have this in the stores tomorrow.)

Our second step is to plan for a disruption in our UNFI deliveries. Don't worry - there will still be plenty of groceries to buy. We're creating an account with an alternate distributor so we can keep you stocked with spaghetti sauce and quinoa while we support the Teamsters in their struggle for fair wages and a safe work environment.

Stay tuned to the blog for  updates! We'll post more information as we receive it. And if you have ideas, comments, questions or concerns, email us at outreach -at-

Tell UNFI their workers deserve a fair contract!

Hank Heatherly , General Manager
United Natural Foods Incorporated
Phone: 253-333-6769

Steven Spinner, President and CEO
United Natural Foods Incorporated
313 Iron Horse Way
Providence, RI.,
Fax: 302-655-5049