In mail ballots counted Feb. 25, a unit of 53 Portland-area Safeway.com delivery drivers voted 30-18 to join the Teamsters. Employed by Groceryworks.com Operating Company LLC—a subsidiary of Safeway—they pick up groceries ordered online and deliver them to nearby homes in refrigerated box trucks.
The campaign began Sept. 30 with a shot in the dark by brand-new organizer Bobby Rispler on his first day on the job. Safeway.com drivers in Olympia and Seattle had joined the Teamsters and won a $2-an-hour raise, a “90-10” health insurance plan and a $1 an hour pension contribution. Rispler decided to talk to Portland-area drivers.
“Pardon me for intruding, but what’s the pay like?” he asked the first driver he saw. “Horrible!” the driver replied, adding, “We don’t have a union!”
Rispler gave his card to the driver.
Rispler had seen what a union could do in 18 years at UPS. He became a steward six years ago, and in September took an indefinite leave from UPS to attend a three-day union organizing school and become a full-time Teamsters organizer.
Rispler learned that at Safeway.com, pay started at $14.50, and with 15-cent annual raises, didn’t get much higher. And drivers suffered from extreme instability in shifts, never knowing when they’d be called in on a day off or told on their way to the job that there’d be no work that day.
Still, the first few Safeway.com drivers Rispler spoke with seemed nervous about the idea of a union. But then some enthusiastic union supporters stepped up, and a campaign got under way. Pro-union workers talked with their co-workers. Drivers have a lot of time to talk in the stores while they’re loading their refrigerated vans. Word got around. Three to four weeks in, union-busters arrived.
Behind the scenes, the company brought in two attorneys from the notorious anti-union law firm Fisher Phillips. In the stores, Alex Casillas of the union-busting firm Action Resources held at least six captive audience meetings in which he allegedly slandered and maligned the union. He even rode along with drivers in their trucks to try to talk them out of the union.
“Every employee in the unit spent an entire day with that asshole,” Rispler said.
With 36 workers, a majority, having signed union authorization cards, the union went ahead and petitioned the NLRB to hold an election.
In early December, Safeway. com announced a raise of $2 an hour to match the Seattle wages. As a transparent effort to mute union support during a campaign, that’s illegal, but the Teamsters didn’t want to get in the way of the raise by challenging it.
“We just told them if they ever wanted to see another raise, they should sign a union card,” Rispler says.
In the end, just six workers changed their mind about the Teamsters, and the union won by 62%.
“All credit goes to the organizing committee,” Rispler said. “The entire group were warriors 100% of the campaign … They stood up and were willing to take risks every step of the way.”
In the wake of the election, even those who voted no are hopeful to see what they can win in a first union contract.
The newly unionized drivers deliver from seven Safeway stores: 1100 NE Broadway St.; 2800 SE Hawthorne Blvd., and 13485 NW Cornell Rd. in Portland; 22000 Salamo Road in West Linn; 15570 SW Pacific Highway in King City; and 13023 NE Highway 99, in Vancouver. The 11 Vancouver drivers will be part of Teamsters Local 58, and the 42 at the other stores will be in Local 162.
Next stop: The bargaining table.