In preparation for negotiations for a new contract with Washington, D.C.-area employers Giant Food and Safeway this year, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 is liberally borrowing from the “Occupy” activists who made the news last year.
The strategic campaign — including a website it calls “Occupy Giant and Safeway” — is betting that the new brand of activism and its messages will resonate with Giant and Safeway’s shoppers and bring additional pressure to employers to meet the union’s contract goals. To do so, the union is transporting imagery and tactics from Zuccotti Park to zucchini displays. The Local 400 campaign, for example, emphasizes the disparity between pay rates for the employers’ CEOs and for grocery clerks in their respective employ.
“It’s about whether retail will be middle class jobs,” Tom McNutt, Local 400 president, said. “It’s about whether we, the 99%, start getting our fair share of the prosperity that right now flows only to the top 1%.”
Although cautious of the Occupy movement at first, organized labor more recently has picked up on its energy and tactics, resulting in bold strategies like Local 400’s stance at Giant and Safeway. Moreover, some say its populist appeal could be a flashpoint for the labor movement to grow again, arresting a long decline. “The Occupy movement has changed unions,” Stuart Applebaum, the president of New York’s Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, a division of the UFCW, told the New York Times recently. “You’ll see a lot more unions wanting to be aggressive in their messaging and activity. You’ll see more unions out in the street, wanting to tap into the energy of Occupy Wall Street.”
At the same time, a wave of popular rhetoric from the right is raising defenses against unions in the business community. In particular, business has expressed alarm and indignation over recent changes to union election procedures as well as President Obama’s new appointees to the National Labor Relations Board, with many advocating the NLRB be disbanded. They are also trying to gather support for labor law reform, including measures to make it easier to decertify unions and to outlaw “card check” procedures for union votes.
This movement drew strength from actions over the last year as well, namely the NLRB’s since-withdrawn complaint against Boeing’s 2009 move to manufacture its 787 Dreamliner airplanes in South Carolina rather than in union facilities in its Washington state headquarters.
The Boeing flap relates to South Carolina’s status as a “right-to-work” state that prohibits unions from forcing covered workers to join. Lawmakers in Indiana and Wisconsin spent much of last year grappling over becoming right-to-work states themselves as union officials fretted over the potential of national right-to-work legislation such as that introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, last August.
“For too long, American workers have been treated by union leaders as little more than human ATMs,” Hatch said in a speech introducing the Employee Rights Act bill to Congress. “They claim to be progressives, supportive of equality and democracy and the working man. This bill is consistent with those principles, providing working men and woman with a real and meaningful voice in decisions regarding unionization.”