Update: On September 8, UFCW770 announced that the union had reached a tentative agreement with the supermarket chains to avert a strike. Union members have begun voting on the contract, with updates to come to the public as soon as it’s approved.
When Sharon Hechler started working in Arcadia, California as a cashier for the supermarket chain Albertsons 46 years ago, she never intended to make it her lifelong career.
“Then, I found out I loved it,” she told Civil Eats. “Once upon a time, it was a great job. We had some of the best pay, the best benefits. So, I thought I was set for life.”
That shifted when the variety of grocery store chains in Southern California “kept gobbling each other up,” Hechler said. “Now, there’s like two major companies, and they’re setting the tone for the consumer and the worker, and greed has set in.”
Hechler says that she can’t remember the last time she received a pay raise and that many of her colleagues have fared far worse than she has.
“The [people] I work with they are counting out their pennies to buy a pound of hamburger, and I see them working every day,” she said. “It’s not fair.”
On August 1, Hechler was one of a few dozen grocery store workers picketing outside a Ralphs in Pasadena, with signs that read, “put people over profits” and “fighting to defend quality jobs.” Workers have been picketing outside Southern California grocery stores since United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) locals voted in June to authorize a strike against the Albertsons—which also owns Safeway, Vons, Pavilions, and 16 other retail chains—and Ralphs, the largest subsidiary of Kroger (which also owns 15 other retail chains).
If a strike does take place, it would be the first time in 15 years that Southern California grocery store employees took part in a work stoppage. A mass action this fall could yield powerful results for grocery store workers, since their counterparts in Oregon and Washington are also mobilizing. On August 24, UFCW Local 555, which represents Oregon and part of Washington, voted to authorize a strike against Albertsons, Fred Meyer, QFC, and Safeway. Instead of a work stoppage relegated to one region, grocery stores could strike up and down the West Coast, paving the way for a national movement akin to the fast-food workers’ Fight for $15.
The UFCW locals in Southern California voted to authorize a strike after grocery store workers were offered less than a 1 percent salary increase, a particularly paltry sum in one of the country’s most expensive regions, especially considering Albertsons reported making $5.2 billion in profit on $18.7 billion in sales in its latest quarterly earnings report. In Los Angeles, the median annual income is $54,501, but the median annual income for a food and beverage store cashier in the U.S. is just $23,780.
Since March, the grocery store workers have been negotiating for higher pay and to keep their existing health benefits, but after 26 bargaining meetings, they have yet to agree on a new contract with their employers. On August 26, UFCW 770 in Los Angeles issued a statement notifying its membership that all Southern California locals will hold meetings September 9 “to vote to accept or reject the employers’ final offer.” The local said that it has also filed “unfair labor practice charges” against Ralphs and Albertsons for reportedly prohibiting workers from participating in union activity outside stores.
Ralphs did not respond to Civil Eats’ request for comment about the negotiations, but Albertsons sent the following statement: “Albertsons, Vons, and Pavilions remain committed to reaching an agreement that will provide our employees with a competitive compensation package that includes good wages, maintains their affordable health care, and provides for their retirement while, at the same time, continuing to keep our company competitive in the Southern California market.”
Kathy Finn, the secretary-treasurer of UFCW 770 in Los Angeles, said that the picketing and strike authorizations taking place throughout the West Coast this summer are part of a strategic effort. Still, workers are losing patience as the grocery store chains have resisted meeting the UFCW’s terms related to pay, benefits, hours, and scheduling.
“There have been more than enough negotiations to have gotten this done,” Finn said. “The companies are stalling because it’s in their best interest to stall, to save money by stalling. But our workers have been falling farther and farther behind. Housing is very expensive; the cost of living has gone up faster than the wages. Everyone needs to get a fair wage increase.”
The Struggles of Grocery Store Workers
Mary Müeller-Reiche has worked for Kroger, the nation’s largest supermarket chain, for 12 years. She started out at Kroger stores in West Virginia and Ohio and is now a cashier and sales manager for Ralphs in Los Angeles. Despite her years of experience, the 33-year-old has little to show for it.
“My husband and I have extra roommates to afford the rent,” she said. “We’re not making enough to have our own place.”
Müeller-Reiche said that she would like to be able to afford her own apartment and start a family, but that’s difficult to do on the wages she earns. While she declined to share her salary with Civil Eats, she said “it could be better” as she stood outside a picket line earlier this month at a Pasadena Ralphs.
“There’s people who work very, very hard, and they’re just not getting the pay that they deserve [for the work] that they’re putting into the position,” Müeller-Reiche added.
She pointed out that it can take several years before workers get annual pay raises. Before then, raises are based on hours worked and given incrementally rather than annually.
“It’s a march of the dimes—we like to call it,” Müeller-Reiche said. “Every so often, you get a dime increase, and that really, really doesn’t do much of anything. Maybe we might get a pizza party now and then, but pizza doesn’t pay the rent.”
In the early 2000s, wages for grocery store workers began to decline. In 2010, according to a 2014 report from the Food Labor Research Center (FLRC) at the University of California, Berkeley, the median hourly wage for food retail workers was just $11.33, a drop of $1.64 from roughly a decade earlier. Low wages have led to these workers experiencing twice the level of food insecurity as the general public.
Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty and a former grocery store employee, said food retail workers in California are in an unfortunate predicament; as of 2014, 36 percent relied on public assistance at an annual cost to the state of $662 million.
“Grocery store workers make up one of the biggest groups of workers in California’s economy,” Bartholow said. “When they’re paid low [wages], the state feels the impact. I worked as a bagger, and we didn’t have a lot of money. It’s really hard seeing food come to your line and not being able to purchase [it].”
The FLRC report placed much of the blame for the plight grocery store workers face on the rise of general merchandise retailers such as Walmart, Target, and Costco. Competition from such stores has led unionized supermarket chains to compete with Walmart’s low-price/low-wage model, the researchers contended.
“[Grocery store] workers used to get decent healthcare and wage increases, but the competition from these non-union segments are chipping away at the things we took for granted,” said Saru Jayaraman, director of the FLRC. “Strikes are still the only way that these workers have to demonstrate their power.”
The popularity of “natural” and gourmet food chains have also placed additional pressure on grocery store chains, but this hasn’t stopped traditional supermarkets such as Albertsons from seeing rising revenues.
“These corporations are making so much money; they just don’t want to share,” Albertsons checker Sharon Hechler said. “It’s just not right.”
And workers who attempt to supplement their income by getting a second or third job run into challenges because of scheduling issues. According to UFCW 770’s Finn, workers know their schedules about a week in advance, but because they change from week to week, the supplemental jobs they take on must also be flexible. Irregular schedules also make it hard for parents who work in grocery stores to coordinate childcare.
“It’s very much a gender issue since childcare disproportionately falls on women,” said Stephanie Seguino, a University of Vermont professor of economics. “In low-quality jobs, people don’t have autonomy over their work schedule. It’s really a serious issue with many parallels to the fast-food workers.”
The Benefits of Improving Working Conditions
Paying workers more isn’t likely to hurt grocery stores. In fact, it may help them. Retailers such as Costco, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s pay workers some of the industry’s highest wages and continue to see market growth and rising revenues. Additionally, paying workers more has been shown to cut down on turnover, which causes companies to lose money as they pay to replace former employees and train their replacements. Grocery store employees stay in their jobs for an average of 1.75 years, the FLRC study found, but those earning a living wage remained for a median of 5.5 years.
Workers who have more control of their schedule also have more success pursuing higher education and certification, which benefits their employers, Bartholow said.
“You want to have people who stay in the industry for a long time, who know food safety and safe-handling practices,” she said. “Public safety depends on them. Also, there are a lot of rules with regards to credit cards and public benefits programs and payments that cashiers have to follow. We want to make sure this information is being appropriately handled and that grocery store workers are well trained.”
Strikes themselves are costly for companies. The four-month grocery store worker strike that occurred in 2003 led to a total loss of revenue of $1.5 billion, for instance. Employees suffered during and after the work stoppage too. Some workers and consumers crossed picket lines, and wages fell afterward, which Jayaraman attributes more to marketplace changes than to the strike itself.
If workers decide to strike this year, she hopes consumers will support them in the same way they did other striking workers, such as California’s teachers.
“Sometimes, as consumers, we see some workers as deserving and professional and other workers as an inconvenience. But everybody’s trying to earn enough to feed their family,” Jayaraman said.
Finn said that consumers can start by letting store managers at the affected chains know that they are regular shoppers who will no longer patronize the store should a strike occur. Customers have more influence than workers do, she added.
For that reason, workers also want consumers to understand how difficult their jobs are. Müeller-Reiche said that because she spends eight hours on her feet each day, she often wakes up aching from the previous day’s shift.
“Every morning, it takes a while to get my feet used to walking again because they’re just so sore,” she said. “There are back injuries all the time. Our arms are sore. There’s a lot of heavy, repetitive lifting, especially cashiering.”
Hechler added that most grocery store employees must be available to work year-round, including weekends and major holidays. Sometimes, she begins her shift at 5 a.m. and other times she works until midnight.
“It is very, very difficult to work in this business,” she said. “We sacrifice a lot. All we want to do is to make a fair wage, a living wage, to support ourselves.”
Photos courtesy of UFCW 770.