Union-represented truck drivers and warehouse workers at United Natural Foods Inc.’s Hudson Valley, N.Y., facility have voted to authorize its leaders to call a strike, threatening to disrupt the upcoming holiday season for the wholesaler and its customers, including Whole Foods Market and other food retailers around metro New York.
About 120 workers represented by Teamsters Local 445 are based at UNFI’s distribution center in Montgomery, N.Y., and in press releases, have framed their dispute with the wholesaler around worker COVID safety protections, drawing a strong rebuke from Providence, R.I.-based UNFI. The sides have been in negotiations to replace a contract that expired last week.
Jeff Swanson, a spokesman for UNFI, told WGB this week the workers were in receipt of a contract offer from the company, and said the union’s focus on COVID protections exploits the pandemic as a negotiating ploy.
“We care greatly for our associates and appreciate all that they do to take care of our grocery retailers and local communities every day. It’s unfortunate that Local 445’s leaders are now disseminating falsehoods and exploiting the pandemic in an effort to try gaining negotiating leverage,” Swanson said.
“The fact is UNFI has offered its valued drivers in the Hudson Valley a highly-coveted level of job security and stability that many New Yorkers are struggling to find right now. We presented a long-term contract offer this week that includes annual wage increases, highly-competitive benefits and strong work flexibility aligned with the rest of our network,” he continued. “We’ve also made it known that UNFI will continue adhering to CDC guidelines, as we always have, and investing in what has been recognized as an industry-leading safety effort to protect associates amidst the pandemic.”
Local 445 in a release this week contended UNFI had failed to comply with state and federal guidelines guidelines that include providing workers with adequate protective equipment, including face masks, and disinfecting and cleaning workspaces. “UNFI employees report that they have been forced to supply their own PPE and cleaning supplies because UNFI fails to provide them, in violation of New York regulations. The workers are concerned about what these failures mean for COVID-19 rates in their communities and for the holidays.
“UNFI should be doing everything it can to keep families safe at Thanksgiving, but we’re worried that the company’s negligence could contribute to COVID-19 spikes, and UNFI workers are ready to do whatever it takes to protect our communities, especially as we enter the holiday season,” said Dan Maldonado, president of Teamsters Local 445.
UNFI has devoted more than $20 million to health and safety investments since the pandemic crisis began, recently achieving recognition for those efforts with a Golden Bridge Award.
A strike before the holidays could have big implications for the distributor and its retailers. The last significant food retail labor action in the U.S., a strike against Stop & Shop stores in New England, occurred during the Easter and Passover holidays a year ago and cost the retailer millions in lost sales and profits.
The Teamsters represent approximately 3,700 UNFI workers in 17 states that may have the right to honor picket line extensions.
“We hope Local 445 will recognize the strength of this offer and agree to a deal. If the union chooses to launch an irrational strike, UNFI will immediately activate its robust contingency plans and mobilize proven third-party partners to keep the food supply chain operating for all our customers in the tri-state area,” Swanson said.