In a series of strike votes over the summer, members of United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) in Oregon, Washington, and California voted overwhelmingly to authorize strikes if contract bargaining with big grocery chains fails to produce acceptable union contracts.
On one side are 20,000 members of UFCW Local 555 in Oregon and Southwest Washington, (and another 30,000 members of nine UFCW locals in Southern California.) On the other side are two massive grocery companies that own multiple grocery chains: Kroger (which owns chains including Fred Meyer and QFC in the Northwest and Ralph’s in California) and Albertsons (which owns Safeway, Albertsons, and 18 other chains). The grocers bargain together as an employer group.
“They’re offering nickels and dimes, and we’re asking for dollars,” says UFCW Local 555 bargaining team member Tena Burch-Wolski, who works as a cashier at a Fred Meyer store in Vancouver.
At an Aug. 29 negotiating session, the Local 555 bargaining team was stunned to receive an employer wage offer that would have been below Oregon’s minimum wage, which is set to rise to $14.75 in the Portland area in three years. When the union pointed that out, management negotiators increased the offer to 10 cents above minimum.
Local 555 also says the latest employer offer does too little to reduce a serious gender gap in wages. Earlier this year, the union dug into data provided by Fred Meyer and found that male journeyman grocery workers outearn women by $1.31 an hour on average. The disparity comes chiefly from the fact that managers are assigning women applicants twice as often as men to jobs in a lower-paid wage scale known as Schedule B that covers work in the bakery and deli departments.
A research study commissioned by Local 555 found that the wage scale gap in local union contracts dates back as far as 1937. Back then, it was perfectly legal to pay women less than men. As late as the 1960s and 1970s, grocery union contracts in Oregon and Washington referred to Schedule B workers as “bakery and delicatessen girls” or “sales girls.” Those gendered references were removed from union contracts by the 1980s, but the pay gap itself persisted.
“We’re not accusing anybody of conscious discrimination,” says Burch-Wolski, “but now that it’s been brought to their attention that there’s a problem… we’re asking that they partner with us to do something about it.”
The most recent employer offer would raise wages 30 cents an hour each year for Schedule A and 40 cents an hour for Schedule B. At that rate, it would takemore than three decades for Fred Meyer, Safeway and Albertsons to achieve gender pay equity.
Local 555 is getting outside support in its campaign for gender justice. At least 28 Oregon legislators have made public statements in support of Local 555’s gender pay equity campaign. And the Oregon AFL-CIO, the state labor federation that Local 555 is an affiliate of, has been waging its own independent gender pay equity campaign, targeting Fred Meyer. The labor federation has converted three box trucks into roving billboards. Driving around Fred Meyer stores, the trucks say, “Shop somewhere else! Fred Meyer pays women less than men.” The AFL-CIO has also organized an ongoing series of protests outside Fred Meyer stores.
At an Aug. 29 bargaining session — after Local 555 announced that its members approved strike authorization by 94% — employers improved their offer slightly. But the two sides are still far apart.
“There is a high likelihood that we will see an economic action taken against stores in the near future,” said Local 555 President Dan Clay in an Aug. 30 press statement. “We will release details by Tuesday, Sept. 10.”