Joe Hansen is smack in the middle of just about every major issue roiling the country — and by extension the industry.
Take immigration reform. In May, his union, the Washington-based United Food and Commercial Workers International Union), joined a group that filed a federal legal challenge to Arizona’s controversial new immigration law.
The UFCW, which represents 1.3 million workers primarily in the food industry in the U.S. and Canada, has many Latino members, who would be subject to the law’s strict rules regarding proof of citizenship. “We understand there’s a problem with border security but to fix it by challenging the status of everyone who looks Hispanic is absolutely the wrong way,” Hansen said.
Hansen is working with President Obama, members of his administration and Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on passing comprehensive federal immigration reform that would supersede state laws. He is hoping there will be progress on this front when Congress returns to work later this summer.
The UFCW was also a major player in the successful push for health care reform this year. Hansen regards the bill that passed to be a “good first step,” but one that needs “other fixes to make this a fairer bill.” One of his concerns centers on part-time workers, who make up a good portion of the employees in the retail industry. The way the bill will impact part-timers is “murky,” he said. “It could turn out to add significant costs.”
The UFCW is trying to get the Obama administration to write regulations that add clarity to the health bill, though a legislative move may also be needed before 2014. “The industry has joined us on this,” he added.
A year ago, Hansen believed the Employee Free Choice Act would pass in some form, but that didn’t happen because supporters lacked the 60 votes in the Senate needed to overcome a filibuster. These days, other issues such as the economy, financial reform, energy and the war in Afghanistan have moved ahead of the labor bill on Congress’s agenda.
Still, said Hansen, there is some talk that pieces of labor law reform — perhaps big pieces — can be enacted. “You might even see the bill as it was originally constructed brought forward; it wouldn’t have the votes to pass but we would have a debate on the state of labor law reform.”
In the meantime, the UFCW is trying to help generate jobs by working with the Agriculture Department to increase food exports, Hansen said.
There are two bills in Congress that would boost union pensions adversely impacted by the stock market downturn in 2008. The more modest of the two — which allows the union to amortize pension losses over a longer time period — looked as though it might pass until the Senate adjourned following the death of Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.; it’s still pending. Hansen thinks a second bill, more supportive of pensions, will be harder to pass.
The funding of pensions remain a big issue in retail food contracts in the bargaining stages in cities like Chicago and Seattle, as well as in contracts coming up next year in California, he noted.
This year, the UFCW has been able to come to agreements on new retail food contracts in New England, Texas and Chicago. “There’s been a realistic attitude on both sides in most cases,” Hansen said. “Our members realize it’s a difficult time, but they are also working harder and need to be compensated for it.”
Hansen would like to see the UFCW’s membership grow, but that has become more challenging, in part because some companies are not replacing workers who leave. In some non-union companies, the union is starting to “change behavior” with respect to unionization, “but we still have quite a ways to go there,” he said.