Food Front Cooperative Grocery workers vote to unionize

Andrea UeharaWorkers at Food Front Cooperative Grocery have voted 64 to 11 to join United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555. The June 2 vote adds 91 workers at the co-op’s two locations to Local 555.

Food Front Co-op is not a worker co-op but a consumer co-op, with more than 10,000 member-owners, and two stores: at 2375 NW Thurman Street, and in Hillsdale at 6344 SW Capitol Highway.

UFCW Local 555 represents workers at Fred Meyer, Safeway, Albertsons, and other grocers.

Food Front workers joined Local 555 once before, in the late 1990s, but voted to go non-union in August 2007 by 20 to 8.

Andrea Uehara, a 27-year Food Front employee, was one of those who voted the union out, and now thinks it was a mistake.

“Over the 10 years we were in a union, we got complacent,” Uehara told the Labor Press June 10. “At the time we hadn’t had major problems, so we thought, ‘What do we need the union for? All of us now recognize that the union actually was a stabilizing factor in how complaints were handled.”

We’re organizing to make the co-op better…. Today I had a co-worker come up to me and say: ‘I really feel excited to work here now.’” — Food Front employee Andrea Uehara

Uehara says at the time Food Front workers decertified the union, management was responsive. But conditions worsened. The company increasingly relied on on-call workers to fill positions, and fell into internal turmoil.

In November 2014, the neighborhood newspaper Northwest Examiner reported widespread discontent at Food Front under the leadership of general manager Holly Jarvis. Ten current and former employees told the paper of autocratic management and a toxic work environment ruled by intimidation.

The union campaign began in January and kept going after Jarvis retired in April. On May 11, Local 555 petitioned for the union election. Uehara says Food Front management didn’t fight the union effort.

Concern about Food Front’s future was also a big part of workers’ decision to unionize, Uehara said. As the Northwest Examiner reported, Food Front has suffered six straight years of operating losses and now faces the likelihood of stiff competition: A new 28,000-square-foot New Seasons Market is slated to open in August at Northwest 21st and Raleigh, four blocks away. A co-op consultant predicts a big drop in Food Front sales after New Seasons opens.

“We want a say in any staff cuts and benefit cuts if it gets that severe,” Uehara said.

New Seasons has never been union. Its Southeast Division store was the target of a February 2012 workers rights protest after a nine-year employee was fired for eating tofu without paying for it. The worker was known to New Seasons management as union supporter, but the National Labor Relations Board found insufficient evidence that that was a motive in the firing, and declined to pursue a charge against the company.

By unionizing, Food Front workers hope to gain the stability of a union contract, transparency in pay scales, and a process for resolving complaints.

“We’re organizing to make the co-op better,” Uehara says. “Today I had a co-worker come up to me and say: ‘I really feel excited to work here now.’”

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