International Workers of Natural Foods Grocery Stores, Unite!

by Alex Gallo-Brown

When I think back, it was probably riding the bus home with my co-worker that did it. We barely knew each other’s names, but we worked in the same department, she was upset, and I let her know that I would listen. Her kid was sick, she already had nine points, her meth-head brother was at home, and if she missed even one more day, they would probably let her go…

I had been at the job less than a month but I knew that something was wrong. I got the job as a cook in a natural foods grocery store outside Seattle with the intention of subsidizing my creative writing. But politics, especially in the wake of the election of 2016, were very much on my mind. Fortunately, my new employer appeared to be a force for good. It believed in “people, planet, and profits,” presumably in equal measure. It prized cultural and racial diversity and strived to reduce waste. It was good to its workers, providing benefits (healthcare, paid time off, and sick leave), “lifestyle scheduling,” and profit-share. It gave back to the community.

It didn’t take long, however, for a different picture to emerge. On my third week, I was scheduled to work seven days in a row. “Lifestyle scheduling,” then, appeared to be more of a suggestion than a hard-and-fast rule. The managers’ style was brusque, top-down, and impersonal. And the benefits were not available for the first three months, which meant that if we called in sick, we accrued “attendance points” at the rate of three each absence, two every time we missed an hour or more, and one time we arrived six minutes late. After we accumulated ten points, for any reason, even a legitimate illness, over the course of six months, we would be fired.

If that policy seemed harsh, the reality was even harsher: We could be fired for any reason (even none) at any time. Since Washington is an “at will” employment state, employees without union protection serve at the whim of their employer; they can be hired and fired “at will.” And at the natural foods grocery store, despite the progressive pose, we had no union. We were completely under management’s control.

I was vaguely aware that it was a non-union store before I began, but it came fully to my attention after union organizers began visiting workers’ homes. News of the activity trickled back to management, who responded by posting flyers in the break room, in the hallway, near the clock where we punched in. They were so sorry the union was harassing us. Under no circumstances were we to give out information about our co-workers. They were here to support us during this difficult time.

Those flyers made my blood boil. They hadn’t asked us whether we wanted to be part of a union or not. They hadn’t given us that choice. I had worked in a union grocery store before, and I knew the benefits that unionization could bring—better wages and benefits, a more reasonable attendance policy, representation in the workplace if management gave us a hard time. But there was broader political import, too. In a time of the populist authoritarianism of Trump, unions, in my mind, represented social democracy—they required people to imagine themselves as part of a larger social project in solidarity with people who they didn’t personally know.

It was only a few days later that I spoke with my co-worker on the bus. If I had been on the fence before—I hadn’t, but I had been busy: those rotisserie chickens weren’t going to cook themselves—her story made up my mind. I was in a more or less comfortable situation—a master’s degree, some money in the bank, a supportive partner, middle-class friends. If they let me go, I could always find another job. My co-worker’s situation was different. If she were fired because of attendance, it might have catastrophic consequences for her and her son.

I began reaching out to co-workers who I felt that I could trust. I started with a woman who I had bonded with in the breakroom over our shared antipathy to Trump. What do you think about this union stuff? I asked her when no one was around. Let’s talk about that later, she whispered, putting her finger to her lips. We exchanged phone numbers and quickly shuffled back to our posts.

That night, we discovered that our thinking was aligned. The store wasn’t what we thought it was going to be. Despite the flowery rhetoric, the working conditions were unjust. It wasn’t right that people were encouraged to come into work sick. Not right that workers could be terminated for any reason at any time. (Already we had seen a number of people come and go.) Not right that we were being subtly discouraged from joining the union. We decided to reach out to the organizers and see what they had to say.

Our first meeting was at a Mexican restaurant not far from the store. The organizers’ method was inquisitive. They wanted to know about how our experience had been. We told them about the attendance policy and asked if that was something that a union could improve. It was certainly within the realm of bargaining, they said. But to win a contract would be a real test. The store, which was part of a larger chain, was notoriously anti-union. Other workers had been fired for doing just this very thing. If we wanted to move forward, we should know that we were putting ourselves at risk.

My friend and I were undeterred. We weren’t going to work at the grocery store forever, but while we were there we wanted to do what we could to help things improve.

With the organizers, we made calculations. There were somewhere between a hundred and a hundred and fifty employees at the store. To win a union, we would need at least thirty percent of that number (thirty to forty five people) to sign “union authorization cards” expressing support for an election. In the election we would need more than fifty percent (fifty one to seventy six people) to vote yes. So far, we had two.

We obviously had a daunting road ahead. I tried to think about how many people I knew well. As a cook, I was largely confined to the kitchen. I couldn’t very well cavort over to produce and start chatting people up. My friend had more access to other departments. But still—seventy six people. It was almost difficult to imagine.

Still, what else could we do? Slink back to our corners? Look the other way?  During the next week I raised the question awkwardly with my co-workers. The walk-in refrigerator became my office. I bantered with people among raw chicken and blocks of cheddar cheese. I started smoking again. When better then to talk to people about the union than when sharing fire in the cold?

The responses I got were mixed. One common concern was dues—people wanted to make sure they were getting a fair deal. Another was viability. Could we really get enough support? But the most common reaction was fear. They didn’t want to upset management. They didn’t want to go against the grain. One woman told me that if I didn’t like the rules, I should find another job.

Over time, gradually, we built up support. At first two, then three, then five people committed to the cause. We met up at my house for dinner, or went out to restaurants for drinks. I found the meetings exciting. At the grocery store we often talked about building teamwork and community, but this was the real thing—genuine communion and solidarity across racial, class, and gender lines.

I’m not sure if management knew what we were up to. I suspect they probably did. They couldn’t legally prevent us from organizing, but they could make their opinions clear. The CEO came held an all-store meeting to address worker concerns. “We’re not anti-union,” she said, “we’re non-union. We’re comfortable with how we are.” Our department manager told a co-worker, “The day this store goes union is the day that I will quit.” During a meeting with the store manager about a promotion, another co-worker was asked to describe his feelings about the union. While interrogation or intimidation is technically a violation of labor law, in order for an employer to face the consequences, the employee has to file a complaint. And my friend, who wanted to advance within the company, wasn’t about to do that.

Over the course of my six months working there, I talked to dozens of workers about the union, many of whom expressed support. Getting them to meetings, on the other hand, was another story. They would tell me that they were going to be there and then not answer their phone. In a way, I couldn’t blame them. Spend your day off, normally reserved for partners or kids or parents or friends, coordinating with co-workers to talk about work? It wasn’t that bad. They could always find something else.

Something else that was almost certainly non-union. At a time when union membership is at its lowest level since the Great Depression (about 7% in the private sector and 40% in the public), job security for most American workers has become a thing of the past. And while unions are often talked about in their relation to inequality, equally important, in my mind, is the political consciousness that they can instill. The ethic of a union is participation, empowerment, self-determination, and collaborative pride. It is about many different individuals coming together to speak in a collective voice. Is it any wonder that in this era of declining unions our politics have seen such a rightward shift? When people are expected to blindly defer to their authority at work, would it not make sense for them to be attracted to authoritarian government, too?

As for me, I was eventually let go. I called in sick a few times; I reached the maximum number of points allowed.

Whether I was fired for organizing, I suppose I’ll never know.

Alex Gallo-Brown is a poet and prose writer living in south Seattle. His poems have appeared in publications that include Tahoma Literary Review, Pacifica Literary Review, Seattle Review of Books, and City Arts magazine. He is currently a writer-in-residence with Seattle Arts and Lectures’ “Writers in the Schools.”

Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to Brian Glanz