While the mid-December sale of UNFI’s Centralia distribution center won’t bring any changes to warehouse operations, according to sources, a months-long standoff between Local 117 workers and management continues, as former Tacoma-based employees fight for the retention of their collectively-bargained rights with the move south.
General warehouseman and order selector Brian Lester was one of several teamsters who were forced to deal with the new realities resulting from UNFI’s Oct. 2018 $2.9 billion acquisition of Supervalu sites in Tacoma, Auburn and Portland.
The corporate transition entailed the closure of the Tacoma plant and the subsequent transfer of the site’s staffers to UNFI’s 1.2-million square foot Port of Centralia distribution center, built by O’Keefe Development.
The building was sold by Centralia DC LLC to Exeter Property Group for $195 million in December, 2019.
The site — located at the Port of Centralia — was established by O’Keefe Development for UNFI on a 20-year lease term and includes 606,795 square feet of dry warehouse/offices and 529,000 square feet of computer-controlled cooler/freezer space, with a trucking maintenance and fueling facility.
Corporate representatives said Exeter will maintain a long-term lease agreement with UNFI.
When The Chronicle reached out to Port of Centralia Executive Director Kyle Heaton about the possibility of a change of plans in the company’s presence in Centralia, he replied: “The only change is who UNFI makes their rent check out to. The building sold, not the company. They are under lease for the next 20 years.”
Although the Tacoma location has been shut down since Nov. 30, Lester told The Chronicle that its former workforce of 200-plus union members have refused to transfer to Centralia, where many of them would be served with a $5 per-hour salary reduction, along with having to pay for their own medical expenses.
An Oct. 7 independent arbitrator issued a decision to support the union request to uphold contractual language of the CBA (collective bargaining agreement) previously negotiated with Supervalu. UNFI has appealed the decision
“To my knowledge, nothing has really progressed in resolving the arbitrator’s decision and UNFI’s unwillingness to honor (it). Most of my coworkers are treading water. Some have found new employment, others are jumping through the hoops and red tape of the Washington State Employment Division,” Lester said.
UNFI’s General Counsel, Corporate Secretary and Chief Legal Officer Jill Sutton, said last October’s arbitration ruling was “misguided.” On that note, she revealed that UNFI has filed actions with the National Labor Relations Board and in federal court in response to the arbitrator's verdict.
“UNFI has offered its associates from Tacoma the same competitive wages and benefits already in place at our non-union Centralia facility. It would violate prevailing labor law for UNFI to offer union terms to associates from Tacoma considering employment in Centralia – and practically it would create an unworkable two-tiered operations system with different rules, requirements, and benefits applying to employees with the same positions and responsibilities,” she added.
Local 117, Lester said, has set up a UNFI Hardship Fund that has distributed thousands of dollars to laid-off workers.
The spokesperson’s former colleague Greg Wiest confirmed union efforts to provide financial support to out-of-work individuals. He further mentioned that he will be joining Local 117’s Secretary-Treasurer John Scearcy and others in Seattle on Jan. 16, where teamsters will be “taking action” against UNFI.
“Without the foresight of our leadership some would not have been able to make their rent payments. The stress of not knowing when they will be employed again and knowing that their medical insurance is going away soon has affected people’s health and marriages,” acknowledged Wiest. “It’s partly to blame for at least one of our longtime members ending up in the hospital. Needless to say, a lot of good people are still struggling because of UNFI and their greedy, heartless executives and shareholders. And now they are attempting to do the same to some 280 more hard-working people in Milwaukee. We have to stop this nonsense and make them honor their legal obligations.”
In the past, Lester, Wiest and others have campaigned for a resolution that would allow Tacoma staff to continue working in Centralia under the existing contract that expires in 2021, or in about 80 weeks.
The plan, as previously explained to The Chronicle, would be for the Tacoma group to join Centralia’s 350-plus workers and delay the bargaining for a new agreement until July 2021, the date by which a new deal would have to be negotiated.
“When the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) or whatever courts rule in our favor, that can be a huge check in backpay. To pay us back wages, back pension benefits and back medical premiums — it seems like it’s a pretty big gamble rather than just bringing us down there for 90 weeks,” said Lester back in late October.
On the corporate front, meanwhile, Chief Supply Officer Paul Green noted the challenges that publicly-traded organizations face in ensuring long-term success in previously issued comments.
Green remains optimistic about the outlook of UNFI and its Centralia site and communicated via email the company’s goal of creating more than 500 new jobs at the facility.
“We decided to consolidate regional distribution efforts here after carefully assessing how the move would benefit customers by best positioning us to serve our growing business in the Pacific Northwest. We’re making more progress each day at our new distribution center as we build out a talented local workforce and ramp up operations. While we hoped to have more veteran associates from Tacoma join us in Centralia, we’re on track to be fully operational this year and continue delivering improved performance for customers across the region,” he said.
In an October statement, he remarked: “The fact is that in order for UNFI to thrive and meet the needs of various stakeholders … we must have labor agreements that allow us to be flexible and nimble in a rapidly changing food distribution environment.”
Scearcy, though, has no intentions of relenting in his contractual battle against UNFI, as he notified The Chronicle that Local 117 has filed its answer to UNFI's complaint in federal court. The labor group has reportedly asserted counterclaims against UNFI.
“We are seeking injunctive relief to enforce the award and are claiming breach of contract. UNFI has until January 17 to answer our counterclaims,” he said.