If you’ve been a union organizer for as long as we have, you occasionally get invited to speak at a high school or college class on “what do unions do?” One of the first questions we ask at any class is, “How many of you have worked a union job?” and if so, “What job and what union?”
We can reliably anticipate the most common answer: “I worked a summer job in a supermarket for three months. My check showed a deduction for an initiation fee and dues. I never saw the union and can’t remember its name.”
In far too many locations, and for far too many young people, the legacy of the giant national supermarket workers union, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), is sadly one of a business union that remains missing in action for its essential members.
The COVID-19 pandemic was the spark that ignited a wave of uprisings among essential workers both union and not-yet-union. Essential workers risked their lives while receiving low pay under often abusive working conditions. It’s no surprise that many workers at Trader Joe’s, Lowe’s and Home Depot did not turn to the UFCW but rather to independent unions.
Although UFCW has many progressive locals, it’s a complex organization dominated nationally by a culture of collaboration with its members’ employers dating back to a series of mergers that made it one of the largest labor organizations in the United States, with 1.2 million members.
Formed in the late 19th century, the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen (AMC) absorbed several other unions, including the United Leather Workers’ International Union in 1951, International Fur & Leather Workers Union in 1955, the National Agriculture Workers Union in 1960, and the United Packinghouse Workers of America in 1968.
In 1979, the more progressive AMC merged with the Retail Clerks International Union to form the UFCW. Sadly, the more conservative culture of the Retail Clerks, which largely favored employers, dominated the merger. For many years after the merger, the union president was William Wynn — who was more famous for his gold bracelets and bling than his leadership of workers.
Still, UFCW has great potential to be a powerful force in the supermarket industry. It has about 850,000 grocery workers nationwide and contracts with two industry giants — Kroger and Albertsons (presently seeking to merge).
It also has enormous financial reserves that could be used for aggressive organizing in the mostly not-yet-union retail sector. In fact, a recent analysis of the UFCW by labor researcher Chris Bohner showed that since 2014, when Marc Perrone became president, the union’s net assets have risen from $199 million to $521 million in 2022. Over that same time, membership declined by 8 percent, for a loss of 106,000 members.
The good news is that reform is in the air at the UFCW and two of the U.S.’s other most important unions. Members of the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters elected a reform slate in 2021 that led to an aggressive contract campaign with UPS. With a credible strike threat, the new leadership won substantial monetary and contract language gains in late July. The new contract was ratified by 86.3 percent with a record membership turnout in August, 2023.
Now the Teamsters are laying the basis for a broad campaign at the e-commerce retail and logistics behemoth Amazon. Much of this new energy is powered by Teamsters for a Democratic Union working in coalition with the newly elected leadership.
UAW contracts with Ford, General Motors and Stellantis expired on September 14, 2023, and new UAW President Shawn Fain declared a strategic “stand up” strike at three assembly plants producing the hottest selling models for each company. On September 22, the UAW expanded the strike to 38 additional GM and Stellantis facilities. On October 11, the union further expanded the strike to 8,700 members at Ford’s Louisville Kentucky truck plant — shutting down one of the “blue oval’s” most profitable facilities.
On October 25, Ford caved and settled. Stellantis followed on October 28. Early on the morning of October 30 the last manufacturer, GM, agreed to terms substantially similar to those at the other companies.
Both the Teamster and autoworkers’ stories are the positive results of internal democratic reform movements that have led to increased membership involvement, more aggressive bargaining and stepped-up organizing initiatives at not-yet-union companies in their respective industry sectors.
As mentioned above, the Teamsters are actively supporting an Amazon organizing program. Similarly, the UAW is demanding that the government-subsidized, new electrical vehicle industry segment also be unionized. In a major breakthrough achieved during the strike, GM agreed on October 6 to put its battery manufacturing for EVs under its main agreement with the UAW. After the strike concludes, the UAW will be well poised to support workers to rise up in the vast nonunion transplant auto industry in the Southeast.
Hopefully, UFCW reform will be next. When 1,200 delegates convened in Las Vegas last April for the UFCW Constitutional Convention, there were two new groups seeking change: a genuine reform movement called “UFCW Meet the Moment” consisting of a handful of large local unions, and a new nonprofit educational fund, Essential Workers for Democracy.
Supporters of Meet the Moment presented resolutions calling for a one-member, one-vote election of officers that both the Teamsters and the recently reformed UAW members have achieved. UFCW currently elects its top officers through locally elected delegates who all too often are also beholden to the status quo.
Meet the Moment reformers also called for opposition to the Kroger-Albertson’s merger, coordinated national supermarket bargaining, and aggressive retail organizing. UFCW did finally oppose the Kroger-Albertson merger and voted to trigger strike pay in the first week of a walkout — but one-member, one-vote didn’t go anywhere, and there was no serious plan for mass organizing. In almost every case, opposition to the latter two reforms was led by paid staff and officers who told convention delegates why the status quo was just fine.
Essential Workers for Democracy, which is dedicated to making workers’ organizations across the labor movement more democratic, tracked and published how every UFCW local union voted on these remaining reforms.
Meet the Moment is led by Faye Guenther, president of Seattle Local 3000 — the largest union in the entire international. Guenther is a longtime union organizer who has a vision for a national union governed more democratically by its members and aggressively organizes essential workers in retail and related sectors. Supporters of Meet the Moment recognize that the reform process is a long haul, and they are already strategizing about the 2028 convention in five years. In the interim, caucus members are pursuing more coordinated bargaining with their giant employers, more external organizing and a major fight against the Kroger-Albertson merger.
Many of those college students who had their first taste of unionism on a summer job at a supermarket are now on the front lines in these retail-organizing efforts. Trader Joe’s in Hadley, Massachusetts, has voted for an independent union — a sad reflection of UFCW’s dismal reputation. With new leadership, many of those workers/students could become partisan combatants in support of a reformed UFCW.
After all, retail workers aren’t attracted to a dues-collection agency, they want to join a militant, fighting union.
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