Retail Union Will Tout Membership Value to Neutralize Trump Threat

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By Ben Penn and Rhonda Smith

The United Food and Commercial Workers will try to combat threats from the Trump administration by proving the value of membership to workers, according to union documents obtained recently by Bloomberg BNA.

“Considering recent political events, including a renewed push for” right-to-work legislation “at the national level, it is demonstrably clear that we must organize harder, bargain better, and communicate our importance to our members and the community—now more than ever,” UFCW President Marc Perrone wrote to his executive board and advisory committee members March 8.

“What we must not do, under any circumstances, is accept these challenges and threats as a permissible status quo,” the union president added.

The Trump administration reaffirmed support for right-to-work laws in February, days after House Republicans reintroduced legislation that would prevent unions from requiring nonmembers to pay representation fees. Such fees are part of the lifeblood of the UFCW and other labor unions, which are facing dwindling membership and rising anti-union measures on the state and federal levels.

Perrone, who took the helm of the 1.3-million member UFCW in 2015, detailed plans to launch a campaign that will start with workshops to train local union staffers to better communicate value to members and nonmembers. The ultimate goal is to change the way locals discuss the benefits of a union contract with workers, Perrone told Bloomberg BNA in an April 5 interview. “I don’t think that all of our members have really thought about how much money that those pension benefits are worth to them,” he said.

The new campaign was conceived before the presidential election, Perrone said in the interview. The UFCW wanted to improve communication with members in anticipation of the continued spread of right-to-work laws. The union started conducting member focus groups and surveys two years ago, leading to research that will form the basis of member outreach later this year, the union president said.

“I think that it ultimately dovetailed in pretty well, but it wasn’t specifically designed around the election,” Perrone told Bloomberg BNA of the strategy.

Perrone sent a separate letter Nov. 10 to all UFCW locals pitching the value strategy as a direct response to the presidential election outcome. The UFCW endorsed Hillary Clinton for president and sent members to stump for her in battleground states.

“Regardless of what went wrong in the election, we must now work together to confront what this means for our Union family over the next four years,” Perrone said in the letter. He then listed a recommitment to proving value as the first step to prepare for the challenges ahead.

A UFCW spokeswoman confirmed the validity of the documents.

Walmart Not Mentioned in Documents

The documents are silent on whether the UFCW will invest resources in organizing employees of the long-impenetrable big-box retailers Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp. The UFCW’s core membership includes employees of national grocery chain Kroger Co. and retail pharmacy Rite Aid Corp., as well as workers in packing and processing and other industries.

But Perrone told Bloomberg BNA that it would be incorrect to interpret the absence of Target and Walmart strategies in the documents to mean the UFCW is abandoning efforts to organize those workers.

“Walmart is always going to be a part of this organization’s concerns,” Perrone said. For example, the union will start a social media campaign this week to highlight racial injustice at the retailer, and in 2016 it ran national advertisements on the company’s wages and scheduling practices, he said.

But he indicated that staging one-day strikes by Walmart workers wouldn’t be part of the union’s playbook. “Walmart was terminating” strike participants, which was “putting an awful lot of stress on those workers,” Perrone said.

Communicating value to members can also assist in a future Walmart organizing effort because members may wind up working at Walmart after they leave their job at a company that does have a bargaining agreement with the UFCW, he added.

The value campaign reflects a defensive approach. The strategy may reproduce criticism from officials who recently left the union that the UFCW is too guarded under Perrone and isn’t embracing innovative, albeit costly, tools to boost membership at workplaces that have long resisted unionization.

But the president defended his tactics as anything but conservative. “I’m not risk-averse at all. You’ll see some more things as we go forward,” he said. “I’m certainly not afraid to go after a fight.” He then mentioned a campaign in the works in which the UFCW will “take on a whole city” but declined to provide further detail.

The union’s membership was down nearly 15,000 workers at the end of fiscal year 2016 compared with the year before, according to its annual disclosure filed with the Labor Department March 30. There are now 129,000 fewer members than in 2002.

The DOL filing lags behind Perrone’s updated numbers, which reflect that the union has gained about 700 members over the past year, he told Bloomberg BNA.

Can UFCW Execute?

Perrone’s plan to grow the membership base calls on each local affiliate to launch two new organizing drives by June. Locals are also tasked with evaluating current contracts with a goal of boosting membership 2 percent to 3 percent during bargaining.

The documents don’t specify how headquarters plans to hold locals accountable for meeting goals. The UFCW in recent years has struggled to get all locals on the same agenda, an issue that could remain relevant as Perrone tries to achieve results through this plan.

Former union head Joe Hansen said that trying to get locals to act in concert was challenging for him and is likely a challenge for Perrone. “When you try to develop a strategy out of Washington and make it sell across the United States, that always becomes a little difficult,” Hansen, who retired as UFCW president in 2014, told Bloomberg BNA.

“Our local unions are autonomous unchartered bodies,” Perrone said in the interview. He said it’s the international’s job to provide the locals the best research possible, allowing them to execute on the membership goals.

Locals Need Backing, Attorney Says

The likelihood of success also may hinge on how much support the UFCW headquarters provides to locals.

“The next issue is how does the international plan to supplant and support the locals by sending out organizers that will assist once those targets have been identified,” Michael Lotito, a management attorney for Littler Mendelson P.C. in San Francisco, told Bloomberg BNA. “I think it’s unrealistic to think the locals will be able to do this on their own, depending on the size of the local.”

Lotito advises clients in retail and other industries on how to keep their workplace problem-free, fending off a need for a union drive.

But Perrone told Bloomberg BNA the new campaign won’t place a strain on the union’s budget and won’t require redirected resources.

“I don’t necessarily think from a budget standpoint it was all that difficult to ultimately come up with an opportunity to do it,” he said. “It’s just more focus around communication with our members.”

Walmart Campaign

Perrone’s recent letters to UFCW leaders don’t mention the union’s widely publicized Making Change at Walmart campaign, which aimed to challenge Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to pay its employees higher wages and improve their working conditions.

The UFCW radically scaled back the campaign in 2015, shortly after Perrone became the union’s international president.

Some critics of the campaign, also called OUR Walmart, said at the time that the UFCW was funneling too much money into an initiative that didn’t have securing a bargaining agreement as its central goal.

“OUR Walmart did help the union, but it appears the union made a calculation that it wasn’t helping the union fast enough,” Chris Tilly, a labor economist and professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Bloomberg BNA. It helped the union in part by exposing more low-wage workers, especially those who belong to various racial and ethnic groups, to the power of union organizing, he said.

The former directors of OUR Walmart have left the UFCW to launch their own version of the campaign, while the UFCW still has its own Walmart initiative, which is more of a PR push than a grass-roots effort.

Hansen, who was considered a bigger champion of OUR Walmart than his successor, said that Perrone can launch the value campaign without losing sight of Walmart.

The threat of right-to-work, or “work for less” as Perrone calls it, makes the value pitch necessary, Hansen said.

“What it comes down to is the local unions have to change a little bit and they have to be more active with their members and talk to them about the values of being in the union,” the former president said. “It’s not only the wages and the benefits, but it’s the job security and democracy on the job. It takes work and a different method of servicing the members, but it certainly can be done.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Penn in Washington at bpenn@bna.com and Rhonda Smith in Washington at rsmith@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Christopher Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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