Union Workers Worry Over UNFI Appeal


A sense of gratification and relief on the part of 300 Teamsters following an arbitration ruling in their favor last Monday proved to be short lived.

Employees from United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI) in Tacoma were soon informed that the nationwide food distributor is appealing a directive for the corporation to transfer the terms and conditions of Local 117’s current contract once the workforce is transferred to a new distribution center in Centralia. 

“It’s really unfortunate that they’re going against their word,” said longtime forklift operator, Greg Wiest, who told The Chronicle how UNFI twice reneged on its promise to continue providing Tacoma warehouse staffers the same compensation, rates and benefits they were receiving under previous ownership, Supervalu, prior to its acquisition by UNFI in Oct. 2018 for $2.9 billion. 

“When the union (first) asked if they were going to honor the contract … they obviously backed out on that. Then they said they would abide by the arbitration,” recalled Wiest, one of several protesters who have been vocal about safeguarding their wages, health care and welfare by rallying other union members by sharing their fight through social media and even partaking in a walk-out back in May. 

General warehouseman and order selector, Brian Lester corroborated Wiest’s account by accusing UNFI of “union busting” by hiring new non-union workers in their 1.2-million square foot Port of Centralia storage facility. The new staffers, he added, aren’t being offered the same package that former Supervalu employees had been afforded for years at warehouses in Tacoma, Auburn and Portland. 

According to stats furnished to him by his shop steward, Lester equated the salary and benefits issued to new hires to a $30 per hour pay cut, along with $5 less in hourly wages and no company contributions to health/welfare and pensions. 

“When they originally had their meeting back in February, they told us that they wanted to build the workforce with the existing employees in each phase,” he claimed. “As they were going to move product down, they were going to move employees down. They encouraged us to go and follow the work. Then a few months after that, they kind of flipped on us and said, ‘Oh, but we’re not going to honor your contract.’” 

In fact, it was approximately six months later that UNFI announced it would be laying off Tacoma warehouse personnel in four phases, from Sept. 28 through December. 

Lester, 48, is one of the employees recently informed of their termination, with his last day coming up on Nov. 30. The Puyallup resident has worked at the Tacoma site since graduating high school in 1999, and was only months away from his retirement date in March 2020. 

In an attempt to find out where he stands with his unemployment benefits, the 30-year warehouse professional was reportedly told by the employee security department that his UNFI hasn’t reported earnings or wages for any of its personnel since January. 

“So, for me personally, it drops weekly unemployment benefit about $70 a week, which equates to about $300 a month,” continued Lester. “In my opinion, $300 a month could affect some of my co-workers ability to buy medicine for their children, make a car payment to look for gainful employment, to make a house payment or to not be short on bills.” 

Others who have inspired workers to stand their ground against a “ruthless reduction in benefits” said Local 117 Secretary-Treasurer John Scearcy, at a May rally in Tacoma. 

Scearcy maintains that the corporate powers — led by UNFI CEO and Chairman of the Board Steve Spinner — are “ignoring clear contract language that it agreed to in negotiations.”

Scearcy identified the contract language he referred to as the 23.04 Binding Process, which states: The processing, disposition and/or settlement by and between the Union and the Employer of any grievance or other matter shall be absolute and final and binding on the Union and its members, the employee(s) involved and the Employer. Likewise, as to hearings and the final decisions of a Board or Arbitrator.  

“UNFI’s decision not to honor an impartial arbitrator’s decision …  is further evidence that the company has little regard for its workforce and is more concerned about putting corporate profits over maintaining good, family-wage jobs in the community,” said Scearcy. 

A Minnesota-based corporate communications rep contacted The Chronicle in response to aninquiry about UNFI’s appeal earlier this week and told us via email:

“UNFI believes the arbitrator’s decision is wrong. In addition to now reviewing all potential actions with the National Labor Relations Board, we’ll pursue our right to appeal in federal court. Despite a concerted effort to accommodate our valued associates, we’ve been unable to resolve this matter through …  bargaining because of what we view as union leadership’s disappointing delays. We’ve repeatedly acknowledged the importance of bringing a talented and diverse workforce to our new Centralia distribution center, which replaces three legacy facilities and now plays a critical role helping us serve customers in the Pacific Northwest. This is why we continue to offer Tacoma associates the opportunity to join us there.”

Meanwhile, the food distributor’s appeal process may result in this standoff between UNFI and union members to drag on for months, if not “years,” according to Lester.

Facing the prospect of his retirement being delayed to 2021, Lester continues to put in his hours knowing full well that he and others in the Tacoma plant go about their remaining time in a state of “limbo,” he said, with nothing but uncertainty currently enveloping the work environment. 

“Our plans are to keep our attendance up and our morale up as much as possible (and) show the company that they need our help. They need workers who are qualified and experienced,” he said.