While not directly affected, Joe Hansen and his Washington-based United Food and Commercial Workers International Union have felt the heat generated by the successful efforts to curtail collective bargaining rights of public union workers in such states as Wisconsin and Ohio.
“It's really bad policy,” said Hansen, a former supermarket meat cutter in Wisconsin with two daughters who are public school teachers in the Milwaukee area. “They are taking money out of the hands of consumers. I understand the problems of the states but [they shouldn't] go after workers who did not cause those problems and burden them.”
Contrary to the perception that private sector workers would not support the public workers in the state labor actions, many UFCW members have joined hands with their public counterparts, including Indiana UFCW members who voluntarily joined in protests in Madison, Wis. Moreover, when it comes to its own issues, private labor is more “energized and unified” than ever, especially among younger people, said Hansen, who has headed UFCW since 2004. “It's been a little easier to get people to sign [unionization] cards in food processing and retail meat packing, and in retail.”
The UFCW president even pointed to progress toward the most elusive union goal of all: Organizing employees of Wal-Mart Stores. A broad-based, dues-collecting association of Wal-Mart workers has formed to give workers “a voice in trying to change Wal-Mart's behavior,” he said. While the group is far from holding a union election, Hansen is impressed with its enthusiasm. “It feeds on its own energy,” he said.
But he was disappointed in the Supreme Court's ruling last month that some 1.5 million female Wal-Mart employees could not act as a class in a sex discrimination suit seeking billions in damages from the company. “It's a disservice to all citizens,” he said.
As the new chairman of Change to Win, a coalition of the UFCW, Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Hansen is emphasizing membership growth within each union. In addition to Wal-Mart, the UFCW is targeting non-union Ahold stores in Virginia as well as Marsh stores in Indiana, Giant Eagle in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Tesco's Fresh & Easy stores in the Southwest.
Potentially helping the UFCW's unionization efforts, the National Labor Relations Board announced proposals last month to speed the process of union elections, which Hansen called “a step in the right direction.”
On the East Coast, the A&P bankruptcy has left UFCW workers in a vulnerable position. “We're trying to figure out a way where they can come out of bankruptcy with 75% to 80% of their stores and be a viable business,” Hansen said.
Overall, the UFCW, which represents 1.3 million workers, has 68 separate contracts representing more than 220,000 workers up for renewal in 2011. “We need to work with employers on health care and pensions,” he said. “It's hard to paint a rosy picture, but we have solid companies and good independents.”
As a member of the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, Hansen has talked to President Obama about the need to protect pensions from economic downturns through new legislation. “I'd like to see something happen this year,” he said. The UFCW will also continue to be “part of the conversation” on immigration reform.