A grocery workers union in Oregon and Southwest Washington filed unfair labor practice complaints against Fred Meyer this week in response to what union officials are calling a “concerted effort” to mistreat and intimidate employees.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 also canceled all its contracts with Kroger, Fred Meyer’s parent company, which is a necessary step if the union calls for a strike, according to a union news release. (The union previously canceled its CCK contract, which covers central checkout employees, such as cashiers.)
“Because of those (unfair labor) actions we canceled the rest of those contracts so that we can take larger and more wide-reaching actions than we were originally planning to take. ... A strike is still our last option. There are other options we can take before a strike,” said union spokeswoman Kelley McAllister.
In its complaint, the union says Fred Meyer held one-on-one meetings where union members were unrepresented, posted advertisements for temporary workers as an intimidation tactic and tried to convince union members to leave the union and continue working during any future strikes. The complaint was filed with the National Labor Relations Board, which usually takes months to investigate such allegations.
Fred Meyer spokesman Jeffery Temple said the company encourages store managers to meet with staff in “huddles,” where they can relay negotiation updates to the workers as a team. Managers also use the huddle practice to answer questions, he said.
“If an associate requested one-on-one time, we would encourage our managers to honor that. But we do not tolerate any sort of one-on-one coercion,” Temple said.
“We feel that a lot of the statements and claims that have been made against Fred Meyer are untrue and misleading,” he added.
The union represents about 18,000 grocery workers in this region, including about 600 in the Kelso-Longview area. It cannot strike under a standing contract, but the cancellation is set to take effect Sept. 22. Union officials will provide further details then, according to a news release.
The contract cancellation would also affect QFC stores, “even though they haven’t committed any unfair labor practices,” because QFC is part of the Kroger brand, McAllister said.
Employers must maintain a “status quo” for their workers during a contract cancellation or expiration, the union said.
“In other words, member pay and benefits will not change as a result of these cancellations/expirations. Union protections for our workers also remain in effect,” the union wrote in a Sept. 10 news release.
UFCW 555 and Fred Meyer are in the middle of a 15-month contract negotiation that has stalled over wages and a gender pay gap identified by union research. That “unity” negotiation also includes contracts with QFC, Safeway and Albertson stores, though “right now it looks as if Fred Meyer is the only store engaging in unfair labor practices,” McAllister said.
The union recently passed a strike authorization vote with 94% approval of its membership. That vote allows union leadership to call for a walkout of any or all of the stores involved in the negotiation.
The union on Aug. 31 gave 10-day notice that it was canceling its CCK contract with Fred Meyer. That same week, Fred Meyer announced it was looking for temporary workers.
“Our goal is to avoid a strike, but if there is a strike, we know that people still need access to food. Everybody has to eat,” Temple said. “We are doing our due diligence to make sure our stores can continue to operate” if the union does choose to strike.
Advertisements for the temporary positions are one of several points in the union’s unfair labor practice complaint, McAllister said.
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According to the union, the company posted fliers advertising the replacement positions at a pay rate of $15 an hour — a higher wage than many current employees make and “significantly more than the employer has offered in bargaining.”
Temple confirmed that the company is has posted advertisements for replacement workers at $15 an hour. However, those wages don’t include healthcare coverage or a retirement plan that the company provides for regular employees.
“The average top salary with all the benefits is well over the $15 (an hour) wage,” Temple said.
The union also claims that the company pulled CCK employees in for one-on-one “captive audience” meetings after the contract was canceled.
“If you’re not in a union, that’s a completely legal thing to do. But if you are in a union ... you are allowed to have representation there,” McAllister said. “Sometimes people get intimidated or caught off guard enough that they don’t even think to ask for representation. And at that point the manager can say wherever they want because no one is watching them.”
McAllister said employees were “told they were worthless. They were told they could be replaced by anyone off the street. They were told if they knew what was good for them, they should go ahead and quit the union now.”
The managers allegedly offered the employees a document to sign to temporarily leave the union, so they could continue to work during a strike.
“If you’ve been working the the deli your entire life and you make a dime above minimum wage, and you’re enticed or coerced to leave the union temporarily, then not only do you suffer whatever the repercussions were when you came back (to the union), but you’d also be making less than the other scabs working alongside you,” McAllister said.
Temple said the union’s claims conflict with the company’s regular practices of meeting with employees as a group. And Fred Meyer “certainly does not use intimidation practices,” he said.
“If there was a specific instance (of this), I haven’t heard about it other than what the union is claiming,” he added.
Safeway, Albertsons and QFC do not appear to have conducted similar meetings, McAllister said.
Some Safeway and Albertson stores share a contract with a Kroger store, McAllister said, and those stores will experience a related contract cancellation. The Kelso-Longview Safeway stores are not under these joint contracts and will not be affected by the cancellation, McAllister said.
McAllister added that the union has no intent to take action against Safeway or Albertson’s in response to Fred Meyer’s unfair labor practices. And it’s unlikely Safeway and Albertsons would be included in a strike, should the union call for a walkout, she said.
UFCW 555 has emphasized that a strike is a “last resort” strategy for negotiations.
“Our goal is to get the contract taken care of as quickly as possible,” McAllister said.