Fighting for Justice at Giant
As the labor movement nationwide has been stirred by an onslaught of anti-union legislation, some workers are finding that the crusade of union-busting politicians is emboldening union-busting employers in the private sector as well.
In the nation’s capital, hundreds of workers in the food industry have found themselves caught in the corporate crosshairs.
On Wednesday about 300 of those union workers rallied outside a meeting of several large food and grocer corporations being held at the Hyatt Regency hotel near Capitol Hill. The DC-area supermarket chain, Giant Food, Inc – a subsidiary of Dutch-owned Royal Ahold – is working with a company called C&S Grocers in its effort to outsource up to 700 local union jobs at its plant in Jessup, Maryland.
The annual public policy meeting of the Food Marketing Institute was attended by Royal Ahold, Giant Food, Inc., and C&S Grocers. If Giant gets its way, C&S Grocers will be taking over operations at the plant and other distribution centers in the DC area, which they then plan to shutter and move most of the jobs to a low-wage non-union facility in Pennsylvania.
The workers include warehouse, package and delivery drivers who are represented by Teamsters Locals 730, 639, and 922. They have come together with other Giant employees represented by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 to demand that Giant and C&S negotiate with the locals to preserve the jobs and keep the plant open.
Giant had already signed a contract with the notoriously anti-union C&S company last year, which transferred operations to C&S, a multi-billion dollar grocery wholesale company. That transfer came into effect two weeks ago on March 13. The new operator of the plant in Jessup was set to begin negotiations with Local 730, whose contract at the plant expires on May 14. But instead, after only a few days in charge of the facility, C&S indicated that it would shut the plant down.
The action on Wednesday was planned in order to confront Giant, Ahold and C&S whose corporate greed could mean hundreds of union workers losing their jobs. As an international supermarket chain, Ahold owns close to 3,000 stores throughout the U.S. and Europe which generate over $38 billion in annual revenue.
The grocer companies’ meeting at the Hyatt hotel happened to be just across the street from the national headquarters of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, so workers rallied on the steps of the union building to call out Giant and C&S Grocers for their attacks on workers and their families.
Speakers at the rally included Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa and principal officers from the other Teamster locals who brought many of their members out.
"These multi-billion dollar grocery giants are meeting with their highly-paid lobbyists in the hotel behind you because they want to rig the system," said Hoffa. "They want to siphon as much money out of workers, shoppers and the American economy as they can, by destroying good, middle class jobs."
Joslyn Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO, also addressed the union crowd, along with several rank-and-file workers.
A number of Teamsters from Local 863 in New Jersey came to show their support and related their similar and devastating experience with C&S, which ended in the loss of over 1,000 union jobs just last month.
Ahold and C&S have a record of union-busting practices like the ones now being unleashed on workers in the DC area. Last month, C&S closed six distribution centers that supplied A&P supermarkets in New Jersey and moved more than 1,300 jobs to non-union warehouses out of state. In 2006 the company shut down warehouses in New Haven, Connecticut, wiping out 850 jobs.
Teamsters Local 639 in Maryland is also currently in negotiations with Giant over its contract representing drivers at a produce warehouse near the plant in Jessup. According to the Washington Post, Giant is considering transferring that warehouse to C&S as well.
The mood at Wednesday’s rally was angry and the rhetoric at times was militant. Most of the crowd consisted of Teamster members from the various locals. They carried mostly printed signs that read, "Stop the War on Workers" and "Giant Workers United."
Teamster pride and solidarity was on full display as Tim McNutt, president of UFCW Local 400, said that his members have not only "UFCW pride," but "Teamster pride," too. A number of speakers interspersed calls for further action with a little humor, referring to Royal Ahold as "Royal A-holes." Union leaders referred to C&S CEO Rick Cohen as a rat.
But international labor solidarity was also a theme at the rally. Among the speakers was Brigitta Paas, a representative of the HNV Bondgenoten trade federation which represents Ahold workers in Europe. Paas read a statement of solidarity by the federation’s negotiator, Marcel Nuyten.
"In the Netherlands, we too are fighting against outsourcing," Nuyten said in the statement. "Royal Ahold is hiring temps who work for lower wages and poorer working conditions than permanent staff. So we fight for the same things – to keep good jobs and fair working conditions. Your struggle is our struggle."
Nuyten’s statement also argued that in the face of an increasingly globalized economy, the need for a globalized trade union movement could not be more urgent.
"This company – on a global basis – is attempting to destroy the economic standing of workers wherever they do business with no consideration whatsoever to the workers or the communities they live in," said McNutt.
Other community leaders spoke at the rally, including Mackenzie Baris from DC Jobs with Justice and Parisa Norouzi of Empower DC, a group that organizes for economic justice and the self-empowerment of poor communities in Washington DC. Norouzi said that Giant needs to respect the community whose work has made it a successful business and retain good-paying union jobs that serve the community.
The array of labor and community speakers reflected the scope of a broad coalition campaign called "Justice at Giant," which was launched a few weeks ago as a concerted effort to put pressure the companies.
The coalition includes consumer rights and environmental groups like the Government Accountability Project, which is linking together the struggle for union jobs with the fight for food safety with its Food Integrity Campaign.
"Safe food depends on safe and healthy workers, whose rights in the workplace are secure, and who can take paid sick leave," said Amanda Hitt, Director of the Food Integrity Campaign.
"Through the Food Marketing Institute, these grocery giants have actively lobbied to repeal mandatory country of origin labeling even though more and more of our food comes from abroad, and have opposed paid sick leave for all food industry employees. What they want is self-regulation which has failed miserably in the past."
The rally was wrapped up with a live performance by local DC hip-hip artist Head Roc, who performed his new song, "Giant Ain’t the ‘G’ They Used to Be," written specifically for the local Giant workers fighting for their jobs.
The Teamsters’ fight to save the jobs of hundreds of workers in the DC area highlights the importance of labor linking arms with other sections of the community affected by the anti-worker practices of companies like Ahold, Giant and C&S. In this period of relentless attacks on workers in the public and private sectors, the survival of unions and workers’ living standards will depend upon the labor movement’s ability to stand shoulder to shoulder with environmentalist groups, consumer rights organizations, immigrant rights struggles, and communities affected by budget cuts.
At Giant, the workers waging the fight to defend their jobs represent one link in the chain of the labor movement’s reawakening – and hopefully their victory will be part of an overall working-class comeback in DC and beyond.
BRIAN TIERNEY is a labor journalist in Washington, DC.