UNFI is the country’s biggest organic food distribution cartel, competing directly with behemoths such as Sysco and FSI. Anyone who’s worked in the food service industry in Seattle is probably familiar with the name. It’s one of those companies (like Starbucks or American Apparel) meant to act as the “human face” of capitalism, with LEED-certified buildings and contracts with smaller cooperative farms. The idea is that profitability and “social responsibility” can be mutually reinforcing categories—an argument which very much ignores what profit is and where it comes from.
Usually companies like this leverage a niche as long as possible, supported by wealthier consumers within capital’s enclaves. The added pricetag makes it possible, within that niche, to make a good profit relative to companies outside that niche while also paying relatively higher wages. But these companies are still driven by the necessity of absolute, unending growth, and as they grow they begin to stretch the borders of the niche they began with.
Sometimes they can attempt to expand the niche itself. UNFI, for example, has incentivized the creation of larger industrial organic farms, many of which are hardly better than their non-organic competitors. Starbucks expanded vertically, gradually taking over most of the coffee production line, with one of its newest expansions being the acquisition of coffee fields in China’s impoverished Yunnan province, where farmers are turning to new crops due to failures in staple crops caused by massive deforestation and accompanying drought.
Nonetheless, that profit limit always exists, and the more that any individual company grows, the more difficult it becomes to then re-expand that new mass of money. UNFI has grown rapidly, but little of that seems to have trickled down to the workers in Auburn, a suburb south of Seattle where, despite the presence of Boeing, median income is half that in the city and between ten and twelve percent of the population live under the poverty line.
Refusal to bargain, 45 ULPs force strike at United Natural Foods
The following was distributed Monday night by Teamsters Local 117:
AUBURN (Dec. 10, 2012) — Workers at the United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI) distribution center in Auburn (22 30th St NE) went on strike Monday evening in response to the company’s refusal to negotiate over mandatory subjects of bargaining and other unlawful actions. Picket lines were established at 7 p.m.
“UNFI is not the company it pretends to be. Instead of upholding its stated commitment to sustainable practices and social responsibility, UNFI is mistreating its workers and demonstrating a complete disregard of federal labor law,” said Tracey A. Thompson, Secretary-Treasurer of Teamsters Local 117.
The National Labor Relations Board is currently investigating UNFI for 45 violations of federal labor law. The charges include allegations that UNFI engaged in worker surveillance, intimidation and retaliation, that it refused to bargain in good faith, and that it illegally reassigned bargaining unit work.
Negotiations between UNFI and its 165 represented warehouse workers and drivers began earlier this year. A major sticking point in negotiations has been the company’s refusal to fulfill its legal obligation to bargain over the huge compensation gap between UNFI and other major grocery distributors in the area.
UNFI employees perform the same work as other workers in the grocery warehouse industry, yet it compensates its employees at a rate of 25% less than the compensation provided to the major unionized grocery warehouse and distribution workers in the Puget Sound region.
“UNFI is raking in record profits while refusing to provide middle-class workers and their families their fair share of the profits,” Thompson said.
UNFI’s revenues have increased 83% in the last five years, and it has maintained an average profit margin of over 18% during that time. UNFI’s most recent financial statements disclose that its income increased 20.1% in the fourth quarter of 2012.
The contract for Union members at UNFI expired on February 29, 2012; an extension agreement expired at the end of August. Since negotiations began, UNFI has erected security fences, hired guards, and brought replacement workers into the warehouse to serve as a secondary workforce.
“The success of this company was built off our backs. But rather than treating us with respect, UNFI is spending hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars to intimidate us into accepting a substandard proposal,” said Robert Jurey, a 13-year warehouse worker at UNFI.
Before the strike began, Teamsters Local 117 picketed UNFI delivery trucks at the US Foods distribution center in Fife on December 5, alerting UNFI and its customers of the possibility that a strike was imminent. The Teamsters also picketed UNFI trucks on December 6 at the Safeway distribution center in Auburn and at the SuperValu distribution center in Tacoma. When picketing commenced at each location, Local 117 sent notice of the picketing and unfair labor practice dispute with UNFI to the three companies.
For more information about the strike, visit www.UNFIDrivenByGreed.com.