Power Of The People: How A Labor Dispute Galvanized Local Unity And Won Rights For Workers

By Nell Abercrombie, Central Co-op Cooperative Advancement, reprinted with permission

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, local food system workers get their bread and roses back: the Teamsters 117 strike, ongoing since last December, is over. United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI), Local 117’s employer, returned to the bargaining table and on Thursday, February 7, offered the Union a contract they could accept. Striking Teamsters have laid down their picket signs and returned to work.

According to the Teamsters, UNFI warehouse workers and drivers overwhelmingly voted to ratify the 5-year contract, which provides for reinstatement of all workers, including the 72 who had been permanently replaced, with health and welfare protections, and meaningful wage increases.

UNFI is one of the largest distributors in the natural foods industry, and Central Co-op’s biggest supplier, delivering about 80% of the product you see on our shelves. On top of their dominance in the distribution sector, they own some prominent natural and organic brands, like Woodstock Foods and Rising Moon Organics. Taking them on was no light matter.

Striking workers suffered nine weeks of lost wages, interrupted medical insurance, and other hardship. They spent weeks on the picket line, in bad weather, watching new workers drive deliveries out of the warehouse where many had just lost jobs. But their sense of solidarity was powerful, and is now stronger than ever, said Brenda Wiest, Contract Campaign Coordinator for the Teamsters.

“A lot of these warehouse workers and truck drivers don’t always cross paths,” she said. “Many of these workers did not know each other before the dispute, and it was so powerful to see them stand up until all of their coworkers were reinstated.”

There was also an inspiring groundswell of community support. When Central Co-op stopped UNFI orders for a week as a solidarity action early in the strike, our owners and shoppers were enthusiastic: “That’s why we spend our money at the co-op,” wrote Sarah Fox on Facebook. “I felt proud tonight filling my cart every time I saw something out of stock that was on my list. Proud to go without a few things to support workers.”
Others asked how individuals could contact UNFI to ask for fair treatment for workers. Folks on Twitter retweeted important updates and called on their fellows to stand behind the Teamsters. Still more wrote to us via e-mail and in-store comment cards to voice support for the striking workers. And the support was material, too: Staff and shoppers donated over $5,000 to the Teamsters 117 Hardship Fund. 

We were able to temporarily stop orders because Grocery department management had the foresight to set up an account with an alternative (much smaller) distributor as a short-term patch. Olympia Food Co-op advocated for the Teamsters as well as stopped orders, and PCC sent a letter to UNFI, urging them to engage with the union and bargain in good faith.

The broad support from co-op owners, staff, and coalitions of unions and pro-labor organizations impressed and inspired two of our Grocery workers, Daniel Cobb and Vanessa Tretton, who were instrumental in keeping our thumbs on the pulse of the dispute. “I am very proud of our co-op for the way in which [staff at all levels] contributed something to our unified support of UNFI workers seeking a fair contract,” said Cobb. “It is my impression that… without community support and pressure the positive resolution that was reached would not have been. I am proud of the progressive co-ops in the region for applying this pressure to UNFI to do the right thing.”

Between the Teamsters’ own media outreach and the snowballing grassroots promotion, word about the dispute got around. On January 31, Teamsters 117 tweeted, “WOW! Our petition in support of workers @UNFI has jumped from 2,500 to over 7,200 in the last 2 days! Thanks, all!” Not long after, UNFI returned to the bargaining table, and were able to come up with a palatable contract offer.

With the dedication, courage and perseverance of the striking workers and their families, and the chorus of community voices, this tale has a happy ending. Workers are back on the job with a better contract, our regular drivers are back delivering orders, and we’ve all been witness to the power of people in action. It’s an affirmation of our community’s values: fairness, good quality of life for all, and the strength of solidarity.

For Tretton, the struggle has given her “a concrete example of the ability of solidarity movements to effect change. Together we are stronger,” she said, “and when we fight we win!”

Posted in Food Justice Blog Posts, Uncategorized.

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