Despite healthy industry growth, the wages of grocery store employees in California — encompassing union and non-union members — has declined since 1999, with more than one-third of workers forced to rely on state government assistance to provide for their basic needs, according to a study by the Western States Council of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

The report said non-union employers — including Walmart and Target, along with discount stores and natural/organic and specialty stores that pursue a low-cost model — have created “serious downward pressure on wages and working conditions industrywide and shifted substantial costs onto taxpayers.”

It calls for policymakers to raise wages for food retail workers; reduce incentives for employers to cut workers’ hours; publicly support organizing efforts to create a level playing field for unionized employers; base government subsidies on the provision of quality jobs; enact legislation to ease the hardships caused by workers’ lack of schedule control; support job training programs to promote higher standards for workers; and establish a statewide standard that allows workers to earn seven to nine job-protected paid sick days annually.

“This strategy would promote the creation of good jobs in the food retail sector and help build long-term prosperity for California’s families and communities,” the report said.

Commenting on the report’s findings, Jim Araby, executive director of the Western States Council, said, “The grocery industry was once seen as a reliable source for middle-class jobs in this state. Workers could buy a house, put their kids through college and retire with a comfortable income.

“That these things are no longer possible, and low-wage workers are being squeezed to the point of seeking out public assistance even as their employers grow richer, points to a broader problem in our state.”

The report, commissioned by the UFCW, was conducted by the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, which said its findings were based on interviews with 925 workers over a nine-month period, supplemented by industry and government data.

It criticized the state’s three major unionized grocery chains — Kroger, Safeway and Albertsons — for ‘[choosing] to spend large amounts of available cash on share repurchases, dividends and debt repayment rather than higher wages and [better] working conditions and other strategic investments.”


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According to the report, “While California’s food retail industry has enjoyed consistent growth over the past two decades, the expansion of a low-price, low-cost business model — and the choices that traditional, unionized grocers have made in the face of it — have produced a dramatic wage decline, with high rates of poverty and hunger among workers in a sector that once enjoyed relatively high wages and unionization rates.”

Although food retail employment grew between 1999 and 2010, workers’ wages declined 12.6% during the same period, while the proportion of food retail workers earnings poverty wages — less than the hourly wage needed to reach an annual income of $22,500 — increased from 43% to 54%., the report indicated.

It also cited government data that indicates unionized grocery store workers earned about $3 more per hour than non-union grocery workers. However, between 2000 and 2010, the rate of unionization among grocery store workers declined by 22.2%, and with wages declining, grocery workers were “twice as likely as the general populace to be unable to afford sufficient quantities of the food they sell or the healthy kinds of food their families need,” the report said. “

Unionized workers were far more likely to report earning wages above the poverty line and receiving promotions than non-unionized workers. Unionized workers also reported having paid sick days at almost double the rate of non-unionized workers and were more than twice as likely to [have] a lunch break as mandated by law.”

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