Workers strike could impact local organic grocery stores

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by KING 5 News

KING5.com

Posted on December 11, 2012 at 8:19 AM

Updated Friday, Dec 14 at 1:44 PM

You may see a shortage of organic food in Western Washington now than 165 grocery workers and truck drivers have gone on strike.

The employees with Teamsters Local Union 117 work for United Natural Foods, Inc. in Auburn. Members say they have been treated unfairly during labor negotiations with the company and their pay is 25 percent less than other companies their size.

About a dozen workers were carrying picket signs outside a warehouse in Auburn Tuesday. They repeatedly blocked trucks from entering and exiting the facility until an Auburn Police officer would ask them to move.

UNFI released a statement Tuesday, saying it's "suprised and disappointed" that the union decided to strike and it claims the union never brought the company's latest contract proposal before its members. UNFI claims the latest offer includes a 10.8 percent wage increase over the next three years.

The Rhode Island-based company distributes organic food to retailers like Whole Foods, Safeway and Puget Consumers Co-op. Workers say the company appears to have hired replacement workers during the strike, so it’s unclear which store shelves will go bare during the strike.

For workers like Robert Sheley, who don’t receive a paycheck during the strike, being on the picket line is personal.

“I have a one income home right now,” he said. “We work hard to make this company profitable and this is what they show us in return and how grateful they are.”

Bob Spendlove has been in the organic grocery busineess for a long time. His store, The Grainery in Burien, has been around for more than three decades. He says he's never seen a strike in the natural foods industry before.

He adds UNFI is the big player in the business, from packaged natural foods to bulk items.  He's been worried about the potential for a strike and whether he can keep the shelves full.

"It hurts the little guys," said Spendlove.

From Burien to the Tacoma Co-Op, the strike is bad news. Yet people at the stores can identify with the drivers and others on the picket line. .

"At the Tacoma Food Co-Op, it's for the people, by the people. And we don't want to see these people loose their job, so we'll be very sad" said General Manager Henri Parren with the Tacoma Co-Op. "So we hope for a good outcome."

But it's not just small stores that are hit.  UNFI distributes organic produce and products to Safeway, Fred Meyer, Whole Foods and PCC.

And that's a big part of the reason workers are out. They say they're making 25% less doing the same work as employees in the more traditional end of the grocery business.

"And with the cost of living out here in Washington, everyone's capable of what everybody else makes with the other grocers," said Christie Busch, striking warehouse worker.

PCC has not commented on the negotiations.  Whole Foods said it will be business as usual in its stores and expects continued deliveries. 

Other distribution companies say grocers like Tree of Life and Glory Bee could see some products end up in short supply.
 
As with a lot of these strikes, there are charges of unfair labor practices filed against UNFI, which the company denies. But the company will only say that it offered raises totaling almost 11 percent over the next three years. 

There are no plans for either side to return to the bargaining table, although Local 117 leaders say they’ve extended an offer to negotiate.

KING 5's Jake Whittenberg and Glenn Farley contributed to this report.

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