“Hats off to the 160 victorious strikers at United Natural Foods who withstood nine weeks on the picket line in freezing weather to defend their right to decent wages and union representation,” announced Patrick Burns, a spokesman for Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity (OWLS).
Teamsters Local 117, representing the United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI) workers, announced that a contract was ratified by union members on February 7 and provides for the reinstatement of all the strikers. “Workers at UNFI stood together courageously to fight for dignity and respect,” said Tracey A. Thompson, Secretary-Treasurer of Teamsters Local 117. “They showed determination, solidarity, and fortitude. In the end, their spirit could not be broken.”
The settlement came almost ten weeks after union warehouse workers and drivers walked off their jobs on Dec. 10, at UNFI’s Auburn warehouse, to protest months of bad faith bargaining and the firing of 72 union workers. Rather than negotiate with Teamsters Local 117, UNFI brought in low-wage replacement workers. As the strike wore on into early January, OWLS initiated a consumer boycott against Whole Foods, one of UNFI’s biggest customers, to support the workers.
“The OWLS independent boycott definitely helped pressure UNFI back to the table,” said Robert Jurey, a shop steward and strike leader. “We want to thank OWLS and the other community and labor organizations who stood with us. The solidarity and unity this strike built, within the workforce and community, will help us face the challenges ahead. These achievements can be reached when the working class stands together against corporate greed.”
Just days before the settlement was reached, OWLS activists also celebrated their own important victory with the announcement that Whole Foods was forced to withdraw charges it had filed with the National Labor Relations Board in an effort to stop the boycott.
Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity (OWLS) launched the boycott against the natural foods grocery chain on January 12 to protest business practices that OWLS charged foster union busting. TV and radio stations picked up the story, unions and community organizations endorsed the boycott, and picketers drew supportive honks from cars as they leafleted shoppers to “take your food dollars to another store.”
The goal, said OWLS, was to get Whole Foods to apply pressure on UNFI to halt anti-labor activities at the warehouse in Auburn WA. Specifically, boycotters called on Whole Foods to stop using UNFI until the supplier signed a fair contract and reinstated all its union employees.
The International Labor Rights Forum reports that, “The facility pays its workforce approximately 24 percent less in wages than the prevailing rate in the warehouse industry in Northwest Washington.” The Forum has also criticized UNFI for a pattern of denying employees their right to form a union in its “Report on Freedom of Association at United Natural Foods Inc.”
Burns explained that his organization was pressuring Whole Foods, a major UNFI customer, to “live up to their corporate motto, which boasts a commitment to supply chain justice and sustainability from ‘farm to fork.’
Burns called the NLRB charges filed by Whole Foods a “bully tactic,” aimed at silencing public criticism of its business practices. Corporate lawyers in Los Angeles filed the charge against OWLS and Teamsters 117 on January 18, claiming that OWLS was an “agent” of the union, and “engaged in picketing” in violation of secondary boycott laws under the National Labor Relations Act. Its lawyers withdrew the charges ten days later.
“These claims were clearly frivolous,” said Burns, “OWLS is an independent, grassroots, all-volunteer organization of labor activists who promote the unionization of all workers, especially the lowest paid. Employers and NLRB laws attempt to hamstring unions from broadening the economic impact of strike actions, but community organizations like OWLS are not under the NLRB’s jurisdiction, and we have no intention of giving up our free speech rights.
“We pride ourselves on being a gutsy, multi-racial alliance of workers from numerous different unions, as well as the unorganized. For the last five years we have supported numerous strike actions and organizing efforts, and the victory by the UNFI workers makes us realize how important our role is.
“Despite the intimidation tactics by Whole Foods, we kept expanding the boycott and enlisting endorsers.” Several unions and community organizations signed on to support the boycott, including: Food Justice Project of the Community Alliance for Global Justice; Retired Public; Employees Council, Chapter 3; Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 8; Seattle Solidarity Network; Seattle Radical Women; Vegans and Organic Food Lovers for Justice; Freedom Socialist Party; Washington Federation of State Employees Local 304; and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587.