As United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI) reports fourth-quarter income increased 46.4 percent, drivers and warehouse workers employed at the company's Auburn, Wash., distribution center on Saturday rejected the company's "last, best and final" contract proposal and passed a final strike vote.
No strike date is set by the organization that represents 168 workers. The facility supplies large natural markets such as Whole Foods Market and PCC Natural Markets cooperative as well as independent natural foods stores. It also furnishes organic produce to the region's Safeway stores. UNFI officials are preparing to continue to serve its customers if a strike occurs.
"Management staff and other key members of UNFI team will be on hand after hours and on weekends to react immediately if there are any new developments affecting business," company officials said via press release.
Teamsters Local 117 representatives say the central issues in bargaining have been a stiff production standard and UNFI's refusal to bargain about a large compensation gap between the company and its local competitors. UNFI employee compensation runs 25 percent below that paid by other major unionized grocery distributors in Washington's Puget Sound area, according to the union.
"In the highly-competitive grocery warehouse industry, UNFI is insisting on providing substandard wages and benefits to its employees so that it can continue to maintain an unfair advantage over its competition," Thompson said. "These workers are simply asking for their fair share from a highly profitable corporation that is enriching itself on their labor."
The three-year union contract expired Feb. 28. Negotiations began in March, with both parties agreeing to an extension with an end-of-August deadline. No further bargaining meetings nor a strike date have been set.
“Our hope is that UNFI will return to the bargaining table and bargain what is a fair proposition for our members,” said Teamsters Local 117 spokesman Paul Zilly. "Workers just want their fair share from a company that is doing extremely well. The economy is not affecting UNFI the way that it is affecting other sectors."
UNFI officials say the company presented "a substantive economic proposal" that is competitive within the industry as well as the region served by the Auburn facility.
Meanwhile, they are preparing to run the distribution center with minimal disruption.
“If a labor action were to transpire, as regrettable as that would be to both UNFI and our customers, our primary goal will be to continue servicing our customers at the highest levels possible," Sean Griffin, Group President, said in a release.
Local television station King 5 talked to local retailers before the vote and followed up with this report in which teamster members said UNFI put up a fence around the property and brought in replacement drivers. Union workers remain at work today, Zilly said.
UNFI also announced today that it will consolidate four existing Denver-based distribution facilities into a new state-of-the-art 535,000-square-foot facility located at Gateway Park in Aurora, Colo. The project is expected to open next summer.