On Feb. 3, the same day that Seattle’s $4/hour “hazard pay” law for grocery store workers went into effect, the Northwest Grocery Association and the Washington Food Industry Association filed a lawsuit against the city of Seattle to stop this new law.
The lawsuit filed in Seattle’s U.S. District Court alleges that the so-called “hazard pay” law interferes with the collective-bargaining process between grocery stores and unions. The other allegation is that the law “picks winners and losers” by singling out large grocery companies. This allegation underscores that the law only applies to those grocery stores with more than 500 employees worldwide. As many as 10,000 workers in Seattle are eligible for the pay boost.
WFIA CEO Tammy Hetrick alleges that city supermarkets can’t afford the hazard pay law, saying, “Had they asked, we would have told them that most of our stores in Seattle have seen decreased sales and profits for 2020. Many of them are losing money every day they’re open.” She raised the specter of the mandated pay raise leading to an increase in consumer prices. (MyNorthwest.com)
In direct contradiction to Hetrick, a quick Google search on “grocery store profits 2020” returns these top three results: “Profits soar at Kroger, Walmart and other retailers thanks to pandemic,” followed by “The great grocery boom is slowing down” and “Covid vaccine could mean a slowdown in growth for grocers.” (Detroit Free Press, CNN and CNBC)
According to a report on the Brookings Institute’s website, Kroger, which also owns QFC, Fred Meyers, Harris Teeter and Ralphs, showed a net profit of $2 billion over 2 quarters in 2020. Albertsons, which owns Randalls, Safeway and Star Market, made a profit of $871 million over three quarters in 2020.
“We see this kind of employer pushback every time we pass workers-rights laws, but it’s especially unfortunate in the middle of a pandemic that these grocery employers are going to such great lengths to avoid paying workers,” Anna Minard, a spokesperson for UFCW Local 21. (The Hill)
In contrast to the grocery associations’ lawsuit, two grocery store chains operating in Seattle, PCC Community Markets and Trader Joe’s, have both implemented companywide pay increases for all employees.
PCC Community Markets which operates over the greater Seattle area, stated on its web page, “All hourly store staff will receive a temporary $4 per hour wage increase in hazard pay. The co-op is providing this additional pay to all of its nearly 1,500 union represented staff members at the co-op’s 15 locations. Hazard pay will be paid retroactively from Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021.” The employees at PCC Community Markets are represented by the UFCW Local 21.
National chain Trader Joe’s has added this language to the corporate website. “Effective February 1, 2021, the ‘thank you’ premium for all hourly, non-management Crew Members, was increased by two dollars, for a total of $4 an hour. Moreover, during this time, we have offered Crew Members a few additional ways to qualify for and maintain health insurance.” The workers at Trader Joe’s are not represented by a union.
Additionally, the city of Burien, located south of Seattle and west of the SeaTac International Airport, passed a law mandating $5/hour hazard pay during the pandemic. The law goes into effect Feb 17 and will remain in effect as long as the pandemic state of emergency lasts.
Clearly, large grocery store chains care more about their profit margin than the health and welfare of their employees. They are willing to lie in order to roll back sharing their vast pandemic shutdown accumulation of wealth. All of this newly accumulated wealth was created with the labor of the workers without any of the bosses lifting a finger. They will not give it up voluntarily without being forced to. Even PCC and Trader Joe’s did not share with their employees this boost in revenue until Seattle required it. It was only after the Seattle City council passed the “hazard pay” law that Trader Joe’s and PCC extended the $4/hour bump to all of their employees.
It was the organized struggle that won this concession. UFCW Local 21 was a visible presence at the Seattle City Council vote for the $4/hour hazard pay and the local was specifically called out in the anti-hazard pay lawsuit: “[The union] sponsored this Ordinance,” the lawsuit says. “The Ordinance establishes premium pay standards that, by design or consequence, empower the UFCW or other collective bargaining units to secure a wage rate they could not otherwise have obtained from the employer at a unionized or non-union grocery store.”
Originally, PCC strongly opposed Seattle’s hazard pay mandate. But on Feb. 11, the Seattle Times reported, “PCC Community Markets and United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 21 said they have reached an agreement on a temporary pay boost of $4 an hour for the grocer’s union-represented staff at stores outside Seattle and Burien.”
Without this organized struggle, the Seattle City council would not have passed this ordinance and PCC would not have extended it to all of their workers. The bosses will never give us anything if we do not organize and fight. If we organize and fight, we can win. If we eliminate the profit motive from what we build and distribute, workers’ health and welfare will become the overriding priority.