More than 100 drivers in New York state who were members of the Teamsters Local 445 labor union have expressed their intent to go on strike over COVID-19 safety concerns. According to union members, their employer United Natural Foods (UNFI), which supplies Whole Foods, has failed to provide them protective equipment and has not disinfected their trucks in months.
“Initially, UNFI was providing these supplies but then it fell by the wayside this summer,” said UNFI driver Martin Perry in an interview with the New York Post. The drivers have been cleaning their own trucks and buying their own equipment.”
Perry and 120 other drivers would usually pick up items at UNFI’s distribution center at Montgomery, N.Y. before delivering them to about 30 Whole Foods stores and Stop & Shop supermarkets in the state and nearby New Jersey and Connecticut. The driver added that his truck is typically loaded with paper products, organic frozen foods, seltzer water, rice, pasta and condiments.
Local 445 president Dan Maldonado said talks between the union and UNFI have been tense over the past couple of weeks, with a federal mediator being brought in to help. However, the dispute reached a boiling point over the weekend when the union’s contract ended Nov. 3 and members voted to authorize a strike the next day.
Aside from health and safety concerns, Maldonado said UNFI drivers complained the company was requesting them to work more 10-hour days. “We are trying to reduce the hours they work,” he told the Post. According to the union, drivers who have been with the company are paid an hourly rate of $28.94.
In a statement, UNFI spokesman Jeff Swanson said that the company will continue adhering to guidelines put forward by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, he said that it is also investing in “an industry-leading safety effort to protect associates” amid the ongoing pandemic.
A strike would be ill-timed for supermarkets that are already struggling with supply issues ever since the pandemic began and are now bracing for a second wave of coronavirus infections. Despite the threat of a strike, Swanson remarked that UNFI has “robust contingency plans” with third-party distributors.
Meanwhile, Swanson accused the union of “disseminating falsehoods” and “shamelessly exploiting the pandemic in an effort to try gaining negotiating leverage.” He added that the company presented a long-term contract offer to the drivers this week – which included “annual wage increases, highly-competitive benefits and strong work flexibility.”
Whole Foods did not respond to the Post’s requests for comment.
Martin Perry and the other drivers have sufficient power to negotiate compensation packages with UNFI, thanks to their affiliation with the Teamsters Local 445 labor union. However, other Whole Foods employees and associates are unable to simply negotiate contracts – Whole Foods’ parent company Amazon uses technology to nip any attempts by employees to unionize in the bud.
Using an interactive heat map, Amazon tracks employee activity in all of its 510 stores across the country. Based on the data they collect, each location is then assigned a unionization risk score using criteria such as employee loyalty, turnover rate and ethnic diversity. Reports have said the heat map tags store locations in poorer neighborhoods and areas with low racial and ethnic diversity as having the highest risk of unionization.
Amazon’s use of technology to monitor Whole Foods stores shows the company’s anti-union stance. A leaked training video intended for team leaders describes unionization as against the “best interest” of Amazon’s customers, shareholders and associates.
In addition, the Jeff Bezos helmed company also has a history of poor employee treatment – from making associates in China work long hours for low wages, to penalizing associates for taking bathroom breaks. Bezos appears to approve the ill-treatment of employees as a justification to eliminate the human workforce from all of his company’s subsidiaries.
Read more news about the Amazon-owned grocery store chain at WholeFoods.news.