Key development: Reorganized the UFCW to establish unified national bargaining platforms and a stronger focus on recruiting new members.
What's next: Building new membership by organizing non-union locations.
The country's largest supermarket chains have crafted national strategies for negotiating with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union -- so it only follows that the UFCW would want to counter with a national bargaining strategy of its own.
This year, at the direction of UFCW President Joe Hansen and with input from the local leadership, the union has adopted a new set of guidelines for how to approach organizing, bargaining and political action.
"When we face Safeway, Albertsons or Kroger -- and Kroger is probably the best, they come the best prepared -- they are national companies, and they come with a national program," Hansen told SN. "If we don't have a national answer to all that, we are at a real disadvantage.
"We are building strategic bargaining that will be coordinated throughout the country and the individual chains."
Hansen said having a national platform on issues like health care, supported by locals throughout the country, will likely give the union more clout in individual negotiations.
"I don't look at this as a way to cause strikes," he said. "I look at it as a smarter way to bargain."
After taking over the presidency last year, shortly after the prolonged labor dispute in Southern California was settled, Hansen realized the union needed to change. He formed a 73-member committee comprising representatives from locals around the country and from within the main office of the UFCW in Washington to formulate some guidelines for moving the organization forward.
Bob Potter, president of UFCW Local 951, Grand Rapids, Mich., and one of the co-chairs of the committee, told SN that Hansen recognized the need to tap into the collective front-line knowledge of the locals.
"He's both a visionary and realist at the same time," Potter said of Hansen. "He has a clear view of what he wants to accomplish within the organization, and he is realistic about how he wants to accomplish that."
Although the UFCW continues to devote resources toward the opposition of Wal-Mart Stores, Bentonville, Ark., which Hansen sees as a threat to all American workers, he said the UFCW would primarily refocus its energies on non-union supermarkets.
"There are non-union Kroger stores, there are non-union Safeway stores, and now Albertsons has these Bristol Farms stores [that are opening as non-union at former Albertsons sites.]"
Wal-Mart, he said, is a separate issue that the UFCW is tackling in concert with other unions.
"Wal-Mart has grown to the point where we have allies in other unions and outside the union movement," he said.
In Canada, the UFCW has made some headway in its efforts to unionize Wal-Mart, which Hansen attributes to the more labor-friendly regulatory environment there, although Wal-Mart has yet to convert a Wal-Mart to a union store.
Hansen also has emerged as one of the leading forces in the national labor movement's evolution. The UFCW was one of the five founding members of the Change to Win Coalition, a group of unions seeking to reshape the AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization that includes 57 labor unions in a range of industries. Change to Win is seeking to force the AFL-CIO to devote more resources to organizing within each of the union's core industries and to give individual unions more clout in the management of the AFL-CIO.
"The core of what Joe is seeking to do at the AFL-CIO is very similar to what we have done internally," said Greg Denier, a spokesman for the UFCW. "The internal changes we were going through were the same kinds of changes he's proposing for the labor movement as a whole."