The unfair labor practices strike at Fort Wayne’s United Natural Foods, Inc. [NYSE: UNFI] distribution center had escalated to include pickets in Hopkins, Minnesota, and Green Bay, Wisconsin. The conflict stems from UNFI’s purchase of Supervalu and the subsequent hostility towards unionized workers.

The escalation proved to be effective. Talks are scheduled to resume Thursday.

“After they agreed to meet, I pulled down the picket lines,” said George Gerdes, principal officer of Local 414 to Star Tribune. “Our goal was to get them back to the table in good-faith bargaining.”

Steve Vairma, vice president and warehouse division director for Teamsters International, said the Fort Wayne strike against UNFI stems from charges of federal labor law violations, including failure to bargain with the union and unilateral changes in operations. More charges are under review, he added.

“Based on what we’ve witnessed in the Pacific Northwest and now in Fort Wayne, we believe management is attempting to undermine every single Teamster contract with the company,” Vairma said. “We will not surrender core union rights and principles protecting our members’ wages, benefits, work roles and the right to organize because UNFI management finds them inconvenient or less than ideal for its restructuring plan. Our members will not stand for it, as the picket lines in Fort Wayne, Green Bay and Hopkins clearly show.”

Hundreds of workers at United Natural Foods Inc. warehouses in Hopkins and two other sites ended their walkout late Wednesday after the company agreed to resume talks with the Teamsters at a plant in Indiana.

When it acquired Supervalu, UNFI brought thousands of Teamsters members at distribution centers nationwide under a single company. According to the Teamsters, Supervalu was a “decades-long, Teamster-represented company” whereas UNFI “has had a troubled labor history and has often been hostile towards workers’ rights, including their freedom of association.” 

At UNFI, Teamsters represents 4,000 members at 31 facilities under 51 collective bargaining agreements. 

The strike by 158 Teamsters Local 414 members who supply food and other products to grocery stores began Dec. 12, affecting customers in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, W. Virginia and Kentucky. Local 414’s contract with UNFI expired Sept. 14.

The Hopkins facility, with more than 700 Teamsters Local 120 members, serves the Cub Foods supermarket chain, and the Green Bay DC, with 150 Teamsters Local 662 members, supplies Festival Foods stores.

“The open contract for our UNFI Fort Wayne facility members is far from the only UNFI Teamsters contract now at the negotiating table. We currently have three open contracts with the company and eight other contracts that will expire in 2020,” Vairma said in a conference call Wednesday. “I can tell you from my negotiations and discussions with management today that the company continues to insist on unacceptable demands, including the ability to subcontract the work currently performed by our members, as well as the blanket elimination of picket-line language allowing our members to honor lawful strikes extending to UNFI locations. These proposals cannot and will not resolve the company’s failure to manage and grow its operations.”

“Many of our members have decades of experience at this facility, and we’ve never seen the company act with such disrespect,” said George Gerdes, Teamsters Local 414 Secretary-Treasurer. “We will not stand idly by while UNFI flagrantly disregards workers’ rights and federal labor law. We’re ready to do what it takes to protect our rights in Fort Wayne and the rights of UNFI workers across the country.”

More than 700 Teamsters Local 120 members at the Hopkins facility and 150 Teamsters Local 662 members in Green Bay exercised their right to honor the picket line extension, bringing the total workers affected by the ongoing labor dispute to more than 1,000. The Hopkins facility services the Cub Foods grocery chain; Green Bay services Festival Foods stores.

In a statement late Tuesday, UNFI called the Teamsters’ extended support of the Fort Wayne strike “misguided” and said it was “reckless for Teamsters leadership to expose UNFI’s valued associates to unnecessary uncertainty and instability around the holidays.” The Providence, R.I.-based company also claimed the union timed its actions to coincide with its Dec. 18 annual shareholders meeting.

“UNFI remains well-positioned to continue meeting our customer needs across the Twin Cities and throughout the Midwest. We’re very disappointed that Teamsters Local 120, which is working under a four-year contract that includes strong wages and benefits, decided to initiate an illegal labor disruption at our Hopkins distribution center in support of the illegal strike in Fort Wayne,” UNFI stated Tuesday. “Despite this action, we’re confident in our contingency plans and are implementing those plans to ensure continued service to our customers. Similar well-formed contingency plans have been implemented in Fort Wayne, where we are fully operational, and contingency planning in Green Bay is active and under way.” 

Sources indicate contingency plans in Hopkins had not been effective and that were at a standstill.

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