This Union's Members Are Risking Their Lives So Americans Can Still Eat

The president of the United Food and Commercial Workers says around 30 members have died since the pandemic began. He expects that number to go up.

Never has so much been asked of America’s grocery store and meatpacking workers. They are working through a pandemic, getting sick and in some cases even dying so that others can put food on the table. Most of them are doing it for lower wages than other essential workers who continue to do their jobs as coronavirus cases balloon.

Many who risk their health each day have been relaying their fears and frustrations to the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents 1.3 million workers in the U.S. and Canada and is one of the largest private-sector unions in the country.

Marc Perrone, the UFCW’s president, told HuffPost that the union is working hard to keep up with its members’ concerns, as well as those of nonunion workers now highly interested in organizing. For many in the latter category, the pressure of recent weeks has stripped away any sense that they are paid fairly and protected adequately on the job.

“We have more leads than we’ve ever had as a union,” Perrone said. “The question is … are we at the tipping point yet? This pandemic ripped gaping holes in the system. Is it going to change the way workers can unify together to make a move?”

The UFCW has emerged as one of the most important labor unions in the coronavirus crisis because of where it represents workers: in grocery stores, meatpacking and processing plants and pharmacies. Few private-sector unions outside of health care would have so many members continuing to clock in because their work is so crucial to the lives of others.

A masked cashier rings up purchases behind a plexiglass shield at a Stop and Shop grocery store in Queens, New York.
A masked cashier rings up purchases behind a plexiglass shield at a Stop and Shop grocery store in Queens, New York.
Morse Collection/Gado via Getty Images

The work seems to have come at a steep cost already. The union is still gathering data on infections and deaths among its membership, but Perrone said that around 30 people appear to have died since the pandemic began. In some cases, he cautioned, a COVID-19 diagnosis has not been confirmed yet.

A few of those workers became national news, like Leilani Jordan, a Giant store clerk who had a disability and was among the first grocery store workers to die. Infections have also hit hundreds of poultry and beef processing workers represented by the UFCW and its affiliate, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. At least three workers at a Tyson Foods plant in Georgia have died.

“This pandemic ripped gaping holes in the system.”

- Marc Perrone, UFCW president

Perrone said the union has felt a lot of frustration trying to keep grocery store and meatpacking workers safe during the pandemic. He wishes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had recommended weeks ago that the general public wear masks, but the guidance didn’t come until early April. The agency previously said only sick people and health care workers should worry about wearing masks in public.

He said employers would have struggled to obtain masks, but he believes many did not want their workers to wear them anyway because they could have been off-putting to shoppers. In the early days of the pandemic, Perrone said, employers pointed to the CDC guidance to say masks were unnecessary.

“We said, ‘Look, we don’t care what the CDC says ― it doesn’t make sense. We need to put them in masks and the members believe they need to be in masks,’” he said.

On an average day, a typical grocery store might handle 800 to 1,200 customers, according to Perrone. But when people began stocking up on food and supplies, that count shot up as high as 10,000 in some locations, putting workers in usually close proximity to shoppers.

“I’m pretty aggravated about it,” Perrone added. “You have large numbers of people under closed conditions. They weren’t telling customers or workers to wear masks while they were inside these transmission points.”

Some cities have begun requiring customers to wear masks. Perrone said he would urge shoppers everywhere to do the same, for the sake of workers and others in the store.

He said he visited seven stores in Northern Virginia, both union and nonunion, to observe worker and customer behavior last weekend. He was disappointed by what he saw.

“I found that probably 50% to 60% of the people in the stores, even though the CDC had come out with the recommendation … didn’t have masks on. And workers didn’t have masks on,” he said. “When this is all over with, my members are going to want to know that their customers are going to come back. And customers will want to know wherever they shop, it’s going to be safe.”

The union has also been disappointed by the relative quiet from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Perrone said he would like to see the agency ramping up safety enforcement in grocery stores and plants but sees little evidence that is happening.

“The government was set up, in my opinion, to be more concerned about business than they were about the workers,” he said.

The added risk the grocery and meatpacking workers are taking on prompted the union to push for hazard pay early on. As Perrone put it, the union “didn’t have a pandemic clause in our contracts.” Most of the union’s employers have increased pay to varying degrees. At some grocers, such as Kroger, the increase is a flat $2 per hour; at Cargill, the bonus was 15%.

“I think the reason why the employers were very quick to raise the rates was that they were afraid people would get afraid and would quit the jobs,” Perrone said. “Before unemployment levels had spiked, they weren’t sure whether they could take care of the surges [in demand].”

UFCW President Marc Perrone speaking at a strike rally in April 2019.
UFCW President Marc Perrone speaking at a strike rally in April 2019.
JOSEPH PREZIOSO via Getty Images

Many nonunion companies have done the same, whether because of public criticism, the fear of losing workers or the belief it was the right thing to do. Perrone said he believes the increases negotiated by the UFCW have helped put upward pressure on other chains.

He acknowledged the pay boosts are pretty modest relative to the hazards ― “I know it’s not double time” ― and the union would consider going back for more. But despite all the public sympathy for essential workers and the militancy among some of them, they are also losing some of their leverage due to the pandemic.

One in 10 workers and counting have lost their jobs over the course of three weeks. Unemployment is shooting up and more jobless workers will be looking for a paycheck. That could expand the labor pool over time for grocery stores and meat processing plants, working against pay increases.

“There is a large amount of workers that are out there right now who have to make a choice between their health and the possibility of getting sick and whether or not their family is going to eat or not,” Perrone said.

But Perrone also said the pay increases already secured might not be easy for employers to retract once the pandemic passes, since so many workers believe they deserve the higher wages at all times.

“Everybody wanted to call this money something else,” he said. “Some called it appreciation money. Kroger called it ’hero pay. I said to them, ‘Yeah, but if you’re a hero, you’re a hero, right? It doesn’t really go away, does it? All of the sudden you don’t wake up one day and you’re not a hero anymore.’”

Perrone said many of the union’s members feel the same way. The UFCW often holds focus groups of grocery and meatpacking workers to gauge how they view their jobs. Even in tight labor markets, he said, a high share of them would say they feel “replaceable” at work.

But the pandemic may be starting to change that perception, possibly for good.

“Their personal psychological view of themselves today has to be better than what it was before,” he said. “Because everybody has started to understand that these workers and the role that they perform in society has real value, that it is essential. Are they going to feel the same way coming out of this? It would be hard for me to say they’re going to feel replaceable still.”

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