United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI) said it was “surprised and disappointed” that Teamsters Local 117 has decided to go on strike at the natural and organic foods wholesaler’s Auburn, Wash., distribution center. UNFI added that it had offered to return to the bargaining table on Dec. 11, but that the union elected instead to go on strike that evening.
Picketing began at 7 p.m. at the Auburn DC as a “response to the company’s refusal to negotiate over mandatory subjects of bargaining and other unlawful actions,” according to Local 117, an allegation that Providence, R.I.-based UNFI categorically rejected.
“The union’s claims that UNFI has engaged in unfair labor practices are entirely baseless and without merit,” the wholesaler asserted. “To date, the National Labor Relations Board has not found any instances of UNFI committing unfair labor practices, although the NLRB did find that the union threatened UNFI’s employees with loss of employment if they crossed the union’s picket line. The union continues to misrepresent the situation and undertake a smear campaign in an effort to damage UNFI’s reputation.”
Because the strike is occurring during the busy holiday season, UNFI said that it was left with “no choice but to move forward with contingency plans, which include hiring replacement workers to support customers in the region.” The union said the company had also erected security fences and hired guards.
“UNFI is not the company it pretends to be,” maintained Tracey A. Thompson, secretary-treasurer of Tukwila, Wash.-based Local 117. “Instead of upholding its stated commitment to sustainable practices and social responsibility, UNFI is mistreating its workers and demonstrating a complete disregard of federal labor law.”
The union added that NLRB is currently investigating UNFI for 45 violations of federal labor law, including allegations that the company engaged in worker surveillance, intimidation and retaliation; refused to bargain in good faith, and illegally reassigned bargaining unit work.
Since talks between UNFI and its 165 unionized warehouse workers and drivers began earlier this year, a major bone of contention has been what Local 117 characterized as the company’s refusal to address “the huge compensation gap” between UNFI and other major grocery distributors in the region. The union says that despite rising profits over the past five years, the wholesaler offers 25 percent less than the pay earned by other organized workers performing comparable work in the Puget Sound area. Unionized UNFI workers' labor contract expired on Feb. 29, and an extension agreement lapsed at the end of August.
UNFI asserts that it has made generous offers to workers, however. “The union never brought UNFI’s latest proposal to its members for a vote,” the wholesaler noted. “The company’s most recent offer included a 10.8 percent wage increase over three years, as well as the acceptance of several union proposals. UNFI has made numerous concessions during the months of negotiation and believes that the latest offer it presented to the union is fair, reasonable and competitive.”
Ahead of the strike, Local 117 picketed UNFI delivery trucks at the US Foods distribution center in Fife, Wash., on Dec. 5, warning UNFI and its customers of potential action. The Teamsters also picketed UNFI trucks on Dec. 6 at the Safeway distribution center in Auburn and the Supervalu facility in Tacoma. When picketing began at each location, Local 117 sent notice of the picketing and unfair-labor practice dispute with UNFI to the three companies.