Grocery workers win hazard pay

Marianne Garneau describes a successful direct action campaign in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. Image © Beth, via Flickr.

Last week, workers at a grocery in Chicago submitted a petition for hazard pay, and won.

Workers asked for $2 an hour in addition to their regular wages.

Previously, management had indicated they would receive hazard pay of $1.50 an hour, effective March 30. However, staff were reluctant to trust management’s promises. As John, a grocery stocker says, “they have a lot of empty talk, like ‘we might give you guys hazard pay, or we might give you guys bonuses,’ but they never really come through with any of it.”

Moreover, workers discovered a memo from the store’s parent organization recommending $2 an hour.

They took the initiative to put together their own demand. They researched what other grocery workers were getting, and took inspiration from an online petition on behalf of Trader Joe’s employees. After drafting a letter, they quickly gathered signatures from over a third of workers, and then emailed it to management from an anonymous staff email account on Wednesday.

Immediately, management called an all-staff meeting. At the meeting, they announced staff would be getting $2 an hour in hazard pay retroactive to March 11.

John says it was clearly a union win: “They pretended that the $2 figure that we had demanded was their idea, and it absolutely was not. They were gritting their teeth with $1.50. And they came out of the gate in the meeting with the $2 figure.”

However, they ignored the two other demands, for bonuses and “store closure pay,” which is pay in the event the store is temporarily closed for cleaning by the Department of Health, if a staff member tests positive for COVID-19.

Worker democracy

Workers are represented by the IWW, which won an NLRB election in 2017. However, immediately following the election, the store expanded significantly, from some 7 to 40 employees. While management slow-walked the union and retaliated against union members, organizing efforts petered out. More recently, however, interest in the union has been rekindled, first by the hiring of a new general manager. “We started to realize her faults,” says Jay, a buyer, including “a lack of communication and transparency. She’s made so many decisions without consulting any staff members, the people her decisions actually affect.” Jay says the pandemic “was like the icing on the cake.” Several people recently signed up with the union, and more are participating in union meetings, some of which take place in person, with an ongoing conversation taking place via text messaging app.

Asked how the union functions, Jay responds, “Democratically. I ask the group, ‘what does everyone think about this?’ and we all kind of agree on the best plan of action. All of our voices are being heard. Unlike in the workplace.” As the union effort ramps back up, they are looking to elect officers and formalize their organization.

The fight continues

Going forward, workers have more battles to fight. John says “They keep saying we’re going to get extra PTO if we feel ill, or even if we feel like we need to stay away. But they never even give us our regular PTO.”

Jay says management has also suggested “we pool our PTO together as staff,” and then laughs. “Why should we have to use our resources? It should be the employer who foots the bill.”

This is of urgent concern for workers now deemed “essential,” who find themselves on the frontlines of the pandemic. “Our cashiers have to handle every item that every shopper touches,” John notes. “They stand there all day and have face-to-face interactions with customers.”

Jay adds that “We’re right off of the blue line train, which is the O’Hare [airport] train service, and we get so may customers coming in through the door.” They note that for the past two weeks, since Illinois began taking measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the grocery store “has been a madhouse,” with lines snaking through the store. “It’s terrifying. We’re risking not only our health but our loved ones’ lives. We don’t know the long-term effects of COVID-19. We go in assuming that we all have [it] because we’re in contact with so many people.”

Reflecting on the hazard pay campaign, Jay says “It’s a win but it’s not enough.” Workers still have issues with scheduling and unjust terminations, let alone dealing with the pandemic. They have formally reached out to management to negotiate further on matters of health and safety, but have yet to hear back. “We want to democratically dialogue with our management, and they are refusing to hear our voices or acknowledge that the union really exists.”

In the meantime, they have learned that essential workers have significant leverage in the workplace: their direct action proved immediately successful.