At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Enrique Romero watched a regional manager throw away hazard-pay-related union paperwork, right in front of him.
The incident happened in the stockroom of the North Bellingham Fred Meyer store where Romero works as a pick-up clerk and shop steward.
“That was a big old slap in my face,” the 30-year-old said.
Romero used the event as a catalyst to become more active in his union. Two years later, he joined a bargaining team in his union’s most recent contract negotiations with Kroger — Fred Meyer’s corporate owner and the largest grocery chain in the United States.
“It really felt like we were making some really great progressive changes, and really kind of going up against Goliath,” said Romero, who is part of the United Food and Commercial Workers 3000, a union chapter that formed in March 2022 after the merger between UFCW 21 and UFCW 1439.
The union represents more than 50,000 people in the grocery, retail, healthcare, meatpacking and cannabis industries across Washington, northeast Oregon and northern Idaho. It is the largest union in Washington and the largest UFCW chapter in the country.
Unionization efforts have become more frequent news in recent years, often involving workers on the frontlines of the pandemic, from grocery stores to health care to local Starbucks locations. Whatever the industry, unionized workers are standing up to request pay and rules that are fair to them amid ever-increasing costs of living.
Retail hazards — and hazard pay
Tom Geiger, a spokesperson for UFCW 3000, said the most recent round of contract negotiations this spring — which are always handled mostly by worker-led bargaining teams — resulted in significant wage increases for grocery and retail workers across the state.
This was largely the result of workers being able to leverage the changed perception of just how essential their jobs are, and how essential they were during the early days of the pandemic.
“The grocery store itself became understood, I think more so than before, as a real community asset,” Geiger said.
When the pandemic hit, Romero says he and his Fred Meyer co-workers quickly went from being hailed as heroes — customers were applauding and thanking them just for working — to becoming villains in the eyes of some.
An Asian co-worker started getting frequently hit by customers’ shopping carts, seemingly due to anti-Asian sentiment over COVID-19’s emergence from China. Another coworker was spit on by an angry customer and subsequently contracted the virus. Some older or immunocompromised workers simply walked away from their jobs.
There were long lines for toilet paper and lots of chaos, Romero recalled. As an employee who delivers online grocery orders for curbside pick-up, his workload skyrocketed. Despite employees working longer and harder than ever, Kroger eliminated its extra $2 per hour hazard pay several months into the pandemic.
Romero’s union demanded a continuation of hazard pay, culminating in a May 2021 Bellingham City Council vote to mandate $4 per hour hazard pay for unionized workers at all Fred Meyer, Safeway and Haggen stores — as well as some nonunion stores such as Whole Foods — within the city limits.
“It was really great and motivating to see the union kind of push through it and get us what we felt we deserved,” Romero said.
The new contract Romero helped bargain for was agreed to in April and voted on successfully in July. It makes $4/hour hazard pay a permanent wage hike by way of gradual increase to $4 over the 3-year contract, he said. Wage increments are usually made in increments of less than $1, but this time the union ratified a contract providing the highest ever wage increase for Fred Meyer employees, Romero said.
In addition, his store’s contract — which takes effect April 2023 — resulted in better health care and pension contributions, as well as improved OSHA training to address safety concerns that include active shooters. (A deadly shooting took place at a Fred Meyer store in Richland on Jan. 7.) The new contract also allowed the jewelry, general merchandise and home departments of Romero’s store to unionize.
In the healthcare industry, which continues to struggle with high rates of burnout and staff shortages greatly exacerbated by the pandemic, union contracts are also providing a pick-me-up.
In May, a new contract between PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center and the Washington State Nurses Association was ratified. An agreement was reached just days before nurses at the hospital — approximately 700 to 900 employees — were to picket in front of their workplace.
Laura Bayes, a co-chair with the local WSNA unit at St. Joseph, said a mediator helped to get the union’s point across and allow an agreement to be reached. The new contract resulted in a loss to overtime benefits, but otherwise was full of positive steps, she said.
The new contract includes a 6.25% pay raise over two years: 3.25% in 2023 and another 3% in 2024. This takes a nurse’s base salary from $37.70 an hour to $40.09, before experience is factored in. The new contract also prevents the hospital from changing shift start times or imposing variable schedules, improves standby pay and provides student loan repayment of up to $400 a month, among other changes.
Getting nurses to stay or sign on with a hospital has gotten trickier after the last couple of years. Bayes said that during negotiations, the union was down an estimated 200 nurses from their previous contract negotiation, although many positions are now being rehired.
Although the union contract did pass, Bayes said some nurses were still unhappy with the contract after what they’ve endured.
“People were really upset by how awful it was during the pandemic,” she said. “Being stuck in PPE (personal protective equipment) all day, not being able to go to the bathroom, not being able to get a drink, and all the urinary tract infections people got. And there’s really no way to pay that back.”
At Skagit Regional Health, which owns Skagit Valley Hospital, bargaining sessions are on-going.
UFCW 3000 represents more than 1,000 healthcare employees at SRH and almost 20,000 across Washington. Eleven sessions have been held since this spring with no agreement yet reached, said Geiger.
The facility has endured chronic understaffing even since before the pandemic began, he added, driven at least in part by a feeling that many workers are receiving noncompetitive wages. This has led some to seek work at hospital facilities to the north and south. This creates a negative feedback loop, as departing employees increase the burden on those who remain, causing them to feel increasingly burned out and underappreciated, Geiger said.
“That’s really unfortunate for the hospital at Skagit Regional, and it’s also unfortunate for the patients in Skagit County that depend on that work,” he said.
SRH’s original contract with the union has expired, and the two sides are operating on a temporary extension while they negotiate, Geiger said. The next bargaining session is set for Aug. 17.
In the news
Regional newsrooms — many of which are experiencing an exodus of staff in recent years due to stagnating wages and long hours — have also seen some positive changes through unionization.
The latest such effort involves the Everett Daily Herald. On July 19, 23 newsroom employees announced the formation of the Everett NewsGuild, which will likely become part of the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild Local 37082.
Nick Johnson, a copy editor and page designer at the Herald, has worked in journalism since 2010. Though he makes what most would consider a living wage, Johnson calls his wage growth over the last 12 years pathetic. And many of his co-workers are not as fortunate.
“Most folks in the newsroom are making less than $20 an hour,” Johnson said. “I have a colleague who has been at the paper for about 37 years, and still makes less than $20 an hour.”
“Unionized newsrooms are more desirable places to work,” he said. “They’re able to offer better pay, (and) they’re able to offer an actual say in how their workplaces operate.”
The union efforts of other local papers have already been a boon to their workers.
Last year, the Skagit Valley Herald approved a 2% yearly pay raise for its employees as part of an agreement between it and the PNW Newspaper Guild.
Entry-level reporters, photojournalists and copy editors have seen their pay increase from $14.75 an hour in 2021 to $18 an hour in 2022. Intermediate level employees saw their wages increase from $15.75 an hour to $20 an hour, and senior employees received a wage bump from $16.75 an hour to $21 an hour.
In Whatcom County, the Bellingham Herald is part of the Washington State NewsGuild, which includes Washington State’s other three McClatchy-owned dailies (The Olympian, The News Tribune of Tacoma and Tri-City Herald).
On June 9, the union unanimously ratified its first contract 27-0, providing a minimum annual salary of $45,000 for all current regular full-time journalists who are part of the bargaining unit. The contract also provides a 3% wage increase for employees with salaries at or about $48,000, with 2% wage increases on the anniversary date of ratification.
In Everett, newsroom employees asked for voluntary recognition of their union effort by Sound Publishing, which owns the newspaper. Johnson said the company initially responded through lawyers to decline voluntary recognition, but framed doing so as respecting the election process, which will play out after ballots are mailed Aug. 17. All votes will be tallied by Sept. 8.
“We love what we do, and we want to see the Everett Herald continue to produce great journalism and to be relevant,” Johnson said. “To me, it is so critical that the folks who are doing the work have a seat at the table.”
Getting ahead of falling behind
While recent coverage of a few union votes at Starbucks and Amazon may give the impression that more and more American workers are becoming unionized, Bureau of Labor statistics show otherwise.
Data released in January 2022 show that only 15.8 million wage and salary workers belonged to unions in 2021, down 137,000 from the previous year.
The percentage of union workers between 2019 and 2021 remained flat at 10.3%, roughly half of what union membership rates were in 1983, with public-sector workers unionized at more than five times the rate of those in private-sector jobs. Young people entering the job market are the least likely to have union jobs, while workers aged 45 to 64 had the highest rates of union membership in 2021.
Whether the low unemployment and staffing shortages now affecting many job sectors will lead to a rise in unionization is one of the many questions posed as the economy responds to the disruptions of the past two years.
— Reported by Matt Benoit
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