Grocery unions protect workers and save lives

Researchers have long known that unionized workplaces – whether in mining, construction, manufacturing or warehouses – are significantly safer for employees than non-union workplaces. Now we are learning in real time that the same is true for grocery workers, who have been unexpectedly thrust onto the front lines of the fight against COVID-19. Previously treated as “unskilled” and “disposable,” grocery workers are now recognized as essential personnel who are helping to keep millions of Americans alive.

From coast to coast, United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) locals are pushing grocery corporations to adopt measures that will help protect both workers and shoppers. They are also lobbying state and local governments to enact critical worker safety policies, such as reclassifying grocery clerks as essential personnel, providing access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and imposing limits on the number of people admitted to stores at any one time.

Large non-union companies such as Walmart, Target and Amazon have introduced their own measures on worker safety and employment security, but their limited efforts have largely focused pay raises and bonuses to attract and retain employees. Amazon warehouse workers in the New York borough of Staten Island went on strike this week over a lack of safety protections, while grocery workers at Amazon-owned Whole Foods stores are also protesting a lack of adequate safety and employment security measures.

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In the past, many food retailers have lobbied against measures such as paid sick leave that would have better protected workers and shoppers in this time of national crisis. The same companies cannot now be trusted to prioritize worker and public safety over their own greed. In his 2018 book, “Dying for a Paycheck,” Stanford Professor Jeff Pfeffer shows how American corporations manage their employees in toxic ways that destroys their emotional and physical health, which has been all too apparent in the non-union grocery sector. The efforts of grocery unions, in contrast, are more comprehensive, more focused on worker and shopper safety and more likely to be enforced effectively than are the measures adopted unilateral by companies.

UFCW locals on both coasts are currently pushing for enhanced safety measures and COVID-19 policies at the state level, including the following:  

UFCW Local 5: Protecting Grocery and Delivery Workers

UFCW Local 5, which represents grocery workers in Northern California, has negotiated one of the country’s most comprehensive safety agreements with Safeway. Local 5 represents retail and food delivery workers and the Safeway agreement includes safety protections for both groups. In contrast, most of the nation’s food delivery workers have few protections, and often do not even enjoy employee status. Instacart delivery workers, who are “gig employees,” are striking this week over a lack of safety protections and hazard pay.

The Local 5-Safeway agreement includes provisions for paid breaks for retail and delivery workers to wash hands; adequate supply of cleaning and sanitizing products in stores; increased staffing to make sure grocery stores are properly cleaned and restocked; accommodation for employees over 65 to self-isolate; payment to employees who are required to self-isolate due to COVID-19 infection; and financial assistance with child care costs.

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Following similar measures in Minnesota, Michigan, Vermont and Virginia, UFCW locals in California are petitioning Gov. Gavin Newsom to reclassify grocery workers as emergency front-line personnel, which can provide workers with free childcare and facilitate access to masks, gloves and other essential protective gear. The union is also pressing Newsom to enact guidelines on mandatory maximum numbers (Rhode Island became the first state to do mandate social distancing last week),“sneeze-guards” (protective plexiglass barriers) at cashier stations, paid breaks for employees to wash hands and sanitize work areas, and free testing and paid sick leave for any worker who contracts COVID-19 on the job.

UFCW Local 400: Worker safety measures and customer limits

UFCW Local 400, which represents grocery workers in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and D.C., is pressuring companies to limit the numbers of shoppers in stores, provide workers with PPE, time off to wash hands and sanitize, sneeze guards at checkouts, and floor signage to encourage social distancing in stores. It also wants paid sick leave and hazard pay, but safety measures are the first priority for the union. Union officials are responding quickly to reports of workers who have fallen sick, demanding that human resource personnel investigate and provide support for the workers involved.

Local 400 is pushing governors in Virginia and West Virginia and D.C.’s mayor to reclassify grocery workers as emergency personnel, thus providing them with free childcare and other benefits. Responding to union pressure, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan reclassified grocery workers as essential personnel last week, but he stopped short of declaring them first responders, which means they get free childcare but no fast track to PPE equipment.

Local 400 is also urging state governments to enact rules limiting shopper numbers, which is the most effective way to maintain social distancing as stores have dealt with huge numbers of panicked shoppers. Local 400 is pushing for an industry standard of 10 customers for every 10,000 square feet of store space, with a cap of 50 customers per store, and for companies to hire additional store security to enforce limits and protect workers.

Even if enacted, these measures might still be insufficient to adequately protect grocery workers from the threat of COVID-19 infection. However, the union-company agreements and union-supported safety policies would provide them with greater protections than large grocery companies would take if left to their own devices.

For decades, grocery chains, along with other powerful corporations, have undermined the influence of retail unions. But unionized workplaces are safer for workers, and, in the case of grocery stores, safer for the public. In the grocery sector, strong action from unions will help to save lives.

John Logan is professor and director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University. He has studies grocery workers in almost 20 countries.