At Albertsons’ locations in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, union drivers represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters have been waging labor actions for basic protections. Ever since Albertsons acquired Safeway (which had also bought Randalls) It has become one of the largest and most profitable grocery store chains in the US. But that merger also allowed it to do a lot of restructuring and union busting. In locations all over the American Southwest, that merger has led to speedups at the distribution centers that serve the grocery stores and, most importantly for the workers, a complete lack of concern for safety, including COVID precautions and PPE.
Since 2019, Teamsters local 745 in the DFW area has been trying to get their union certified. After winning a tense vote where drivers at an Albertson’s distribution center in Roanoke, TX, the process has stalled because Albertsons continue to drag the process out in court with appeal after appeal. Recently, however, the Teamsters were back out in solidarity with a sister local (local 104, which represents drivers in the southwest and which just took a strike vote) trying to hold informational campaigns for Albertsons’ shoppers. A Teamsters’ press release explained some of the details:
At Albertsons’ Dallas distribution center located in Roanoke, Texas, 78 Randalls, Tom Thumb, and El Rancho Supermercado drivers and spotters represented by Teamsters Local 745 report that the company is failing to comply with COVID-19 guidelines, including providing workers with adequate supply of personal protective equipment and deep cleaning vehicles presumably contaminated with COVID-19. Several workers report that they have been forced to supply their own PPE and cleaning supplies to stay safe at work. In addition, Albertsons is currently refusing to provide Teamsters Local 745 with a COVID-19 safety plan for the facility, in violation of federal labor laws.
“Albertsons is raking in huge profits from COVID-19, but it’s our members who are risking their lives and those of their families by working up to 14-hour shifts, six to seven days a week for the past eight months to keep market shelves stocked,” said Brent Taylor, Secretary-Treasurer and Business Manager of Teamsters Local 745. “It’s outrageous that Albertsons is refusing to provide us with the information we need to protect our members.”
At the same time Teamsters local 104, representing drivers in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico have started protesting about the lack of protections just as their contract with Albertsons is about to expire. Local 104 has already taken a strike authorization. If contract negotiations fail, it could authorize one of the largest actions by unionized drivers since the UPS strike of 1997. Both unions deserve our solidarity.
Section44 spoke first with Brent Taylor (Secretary Treasurer) and Carlos Mendez (organizer) with Teamsters local 745 to learn about the campaign. That interview is followed by another interview with Russell Medigovich (Business Agent for Teamsters local 104).
Tell me about Local 745 and the fight at Albertsons.
Brent (745): We represented grocery warehouse workers since the 1960s. We used to have Safeway, Krogers out in Keller, a lot of companies have disappeared. The only grocery workers we represent are at Kroger. The Albertson drivers came to us in 2019, NLRB came out and certified us. Since that vote, the company has appealed on frivolous charges. We’re in 2021 and they are still appealing. We are still at the table. They can actually take it to the 5th circuit, to SC if they will hear it. It’s a lot of charges that a lot of companies use.
Carlos (745): They have made all kinds of bogus charges against is. One of the locations in Roanoke, TX, one of the drivers got to the vote late and management said that there weren’t enough people to vote. But anyone who’s been to the Roanoke location knows that it is hard to find and she was only 15 minutes late. One of the charges was against me, that I didn’t identify myself as a Teamster, even though it said so clearly in the log and my car has all kinds of Teamsters logos on it. They accused us of pandering to get the vote to turn our way because a few members helped out a fellow driver who was struggling with some clothes and other things. [ed. Management accused the union of trying to bribe workers to vote for them with gifts]. They’ve used everything they can to try and decertify the election and not come to the bargaining table.
Brent: The Teamsters and Carlos had nothing to do with the vote – just supporting a fellow worker. Still waiting for the appeal process to play itself out. Our folks have really stuck together. The corporations try to drag out as long as they can, hoping that members will lose interest, and the union will get tired. Luckily, Carlos, who is our full-time organizer, he tells them at the beginning what to expect: that we’re going to win but they [management] are going to try and drag this out in the labor board. So, members have known what to expect. And the NLRB has been so anti-union for the last four years, that we expected this (the lawyer who went after the Air Traffic Controllers in the 1980s was on Trump’s NLRB). President Biden has put in a new head of the NLRB and a new lawyer on the Board. We depend a lot on the NLRB to defend our rights. The Obama administration had helped us out a lot by shortening the time between the time until the vote. Trump extended that time.
The other Albertsons locals (104) have a contract negotiation going on, but they already have a contract. We had a day of action, an informational picket, and we are definitely in solidarity. We are trying to get the word out what’s going on with them and about our own plight at the same time.
What happens next?
Carlos: We are trying to put more pressure on them. There are 8,000-11,000 Albertson workers represented by the Teamsters nationally. We are hoping to mobilize workers to do more informational pickets, more hand billing at locations, we want to extend that to Illinois, California, etc. We think that this can be an opportunity to use solidarity to push for our rights.
Brent: Local 104 is in Arizona, and they have 1400 people that they represent. There are a lot of locals throughout the country and each has their own contract with Albertsons with their own contract end dates. They are trying to get a better deal, and the company is stonewalling. They are making record profits at Albertsons and they are being stingy about everything, including COVID supplies. We are going to be passing out leaflets at their most important stores on our area to help get the word out.
As far as the legal issues go for us, our hands are tied, they have the right to appeal. The NLRB has the ability to set the timeline and we are dependent on them to do what’s right.
How can we build solidarity and organize other grocery workers?
Brent: We will listen to all ideas. Here’s the thing about unions. We go after certain groups of people who are interested in organizing. The drivers wanted a union, so we started organizing there, but the warehouse workers were a bit more timid. They want to see what happens with the drivers. If we win this fight, we are likely to convince them to join on. We are hoping that the clerks and mechanics will want a contract, too. There are 1000 people at the warehouse facility in total, and we would like to represent all of them. Currently, we represent about 60 drivers.
Carlos: Once we start hand billing, we can try and get more people to support. It’s purely informational and non-invasive. Getting the word out to people. People forget that there are people who help the stores run and get the things into the store to make the machine run. And those people are being neglected.
Brent: A lot of things are cranking up about COVID, but our campaign [at local 745] has been going on since 2019. It’s not about money—for us it is more about respect and how drivers are being treated. And Albertsons has not really changed the climate there. And now the COVID stuff has creeped up into their arguments, they are not getting pay and benefits as frontline employees.
We’ve started talking to our members on Sunday to talk about our plans. We don’t want to have a huge presence at the stores because of COVID, but we are going to be at the gates. We are asking our members to go to the places where they live. So, members that live in Fort Worth can cover the store in their neighborhood. We want people to help out where they can.
There are grocery workers in Texas who want to organize. Are the Teamsters interested in reaching out to them?
Brent: We are always looking for membership. We don’t have billboards or advertisements, and so most people don’t think to call up a union and ask for advice or help. We are always willing to help. But we depend on people reaching out to us and telling us what is going on. If people contact us, we will definitely help to lead them in the right direction.
Tell me what it is like at the Albertson’s distribution centers that serve Arizona and New Mexico.
Russell (104): The biggest issues, the overall picture, stems from the merger between Albertsons and Safeway that happened a few years ago. Before the merger happened between Safeway and Albertsons, we had a great working relationship with Safeway. We had a union contract with Safeway and a good working relationship with the management. When the merger happened, Albertson’s got rid of all the Safeway managers. Albertsons’ management had no idea how to work under a collective bargaining agreement. And that has been at the main source of our problems.
The Safeway contract went back to the 1960s, and we did not need progressive discipline language, because Safeway had always been good about it. Now, with the merger, they were firing people based on whether they liked them, not on the progressive discipline system, where there are steps you have to go through before taking action against a worker.
Take what’s happened to one of our sets of workers. Order selectors (that’s the toughest job at the facility), they take the cases out of the racks and put them on palettes and load them. It’s a lot of heavy lifting. With the production standards Albertsons has set, for them it’s just a number, that doesn’t take anything else into consideration (weather, health, etc.). They have to move so many units every hour or every day. They were working 12-14 hours a day, 6-7 days a week, and by the end of the day or the end of the week they are bone tired. And then they are being disciplined and even fired for not being able to meet the production standards. The company had no sympathy for people as human beings. That’s been a huge problem.
What other issues are you tackling?
Russell: One of the major things we are dealing with is subcontracting. Albertson’s has always been non-union, so when the merger happened it was a merger between a union shop and a non-union workplace. Albertsons subcontracts about 60% of the transportation labor that it uses. When we merged, we didn’t have the manpower to do all the work that was required, so we knew we would have to accept some subcontracting. So, we agreed to continued subcontracting at the salvage dock, and 25% of the transportation deliveries. But we let them know ahead of time that this was a temporary arrangement, that we were going to come back to this and renegotiate.
But that was back in 2017-8. Then the facilities merged. They took one Albertsons and one Safeway distribution center and put them together. They took down the Safeway center in Tempe and moved it to the Tolleson location. They were supposed to merge and take the two distribution centers together – something that should have taken 9 months. They forced the workers to do it in 2 months.
They were working people so hard, 22-hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week. Some of the people out there sleeping in their cars. All because management wanted to get it done fast. Everything has been a challenge. They are unwilling to follow the contract. They take everything to grievance-even things that are clearly laid out in the contract.
We had a verbal agreement with Albertsons that our drivers would not lose their jobs to the subcontractors. After the merger, the bargaining team was changed, and all the agreements were thrown out. Third-party subcontractors were used.
We started negotiation early (in October) because we knew we had a lot of bumps to fix. We were going to be dealing with a lot of difficult issues. But management would only negotiate two days a month, and there was no movement from management even on those two days. According to Albertsons, everything was perfect, “unicorns and rainbows,” and there were no problems.
On February 27th, the contract expires, and the company is going to try and force extra bargaining dates, but the union is not going to extend the contract. Management is willing to schedule more dates to meet but they are not interested in solving the problems. From our perspective, the issues in negotiation boil down to arrogance: the company attitude is to claim to offer more money (they won’t say how much) so they don’t need to worry about the details of the contract.
Anthony DeCosmo, Director of Labor Relations at Albertsons, told us, “There are a lot of nice cars in the parking lot. You guys are not going to strike.” But we were like, did you see the strike vote (96% yes vote)?
How have the actions gone in the past few days?
Russell: We held some actions. We had a practice picket over COVID issues at the Phoenix facility about production standards. The production standard doesn’t recognize the human element of working in cramped spaces in cold weather. We approached the company because members are bunched together trying to sort orders, without PPE, and that creates a huge concern with COVID. The company answer was it will cost too much and create more overtime. To them money is more important than human lives.
What is the mood like among the drivers?
Russell: Everyone is on board with the strike, but honestly, I hope it doesn’t come to that. If we need to, we are absolutely willing to do it. They’ve been beat up so bad, and for them money is not really issue. When we had a proposal meeting, no one brought up money – and that’s usually the first issue. It was the first meeting where membership didn’t go for money issues first. And that says a lot.
What are your next steps?
Russell: They are negotiating with us, but they are not moving. We have some things in the works with the international and locals in the west coast and Chicago to back us if we walk. The pickets could extend that far and involve all the locals.
What about the drivers who cross into El Paso from New Mexico? Has any attempt been made to organize them?
Russell: The company subcontracts to those drivers. They aren’t represented by the Teamsters and we are not trying to organize them currently. Our job is trying to protect our members. Strategically it is a different from UPS, where they used only one subcontractor (Coyote logistics). Here there are 10-15 subcontractors to deal with and that makes things more difficult.
How can people support?
Russell: We are asking people to reach out to Albertsons and tell the stores that they won’t shop there if the drivers go out on strike. They aren’t asking for anything extravagant. They want a fair discipline process, and a pace that is manageable.