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Building grocery power

An interview with New Seasons Labor Union

Since forming in May 2022, the independent New Seasons Labor Union (NSLU) has organized 11 out of 20 stores in the Portland, Oregon-based natural foods chain New Seasons Market. Now representing over 1000 workers, their organizing has been a remarkable achievement, and hugely inspiring to other grocery workers.Tempest Collective member Paul KD sat down with three of the leaders of the union, all rank-and-file workers, to hear about how they organized, The strength of their union and their commitment to class struggle unionism is impressive. The interview is edited for clarity and length.

Paul KD: Would you mind starting by introducing yourselves, telling me who you are, how long you’ve been working at New Seasons and what you do?

Janet Shek: I’ll go first, I guess. My name is Janet Shek. I use they/them pronouns. I worked at New Seasons for about seven years now, I think. And I work in the grocery department, more specifically, the overnight break crew.

Hans: I live in Portland and I work at the Slabtown New Seasons in Northwest Portland. And I work as a receiving assistant, which is basically like a material recording job. I have worked for the company for about five and a half years.

Ava: I moved to Portland relatively recently. We’ve only been here about three or four years now. I’ve worked in grocery stores for a long time. Basically it was my first job in high school. Between that and restaurant work, I’ve done that pretty much until now. I started working at New Seasons a year or two after I came out to Portland.

Paul KD: Okay. What were people’s reactions when they first unionized? And what were your personal reasons for getting involved?

Ava: About six months after I started was when the first store announced that they were filing for an election. I got involved in organizing from that point. There were certainly people who didn’t necessarily understand why they felt like they had to do it. The grocery industry is interesting. There’s a specific context here where a company carves out a name for itself as a great employer by paying what Fred Meyer does and offering two days more paid time off than Safeway [two large chains, unionized with UFCW-Eds.]. The differences are marginal, but they do make a difference. And so I think some people were like, why do this?

But as I talked to more people, I think everybody shared a sense that even those differences that had made the company a good place to work maybe 10 years ago had been steadily eroding over time. I’m both new to the city and the company but I think what was kind of shared among pretty much all of my co-workers is that our working conditions had been steadily deteriorating.  The argument that was made at the initial store that organized was that if we want to push back against this steady deterioration, our working conditions, what we need to do is [organize] now.

Janet: For my situation, it’s a little different. When I worked during 2020 I was a Slabtown [New Seasons] employee, and then I left and came back. The second store, where I’m currently working at, Grant Park, I also worked overnight, so that also limits me in meeting people. I start asking around very covertly. I started talking to my department and luckily one person agreed. And then we started organizing from there and we figured it out, from his connections as the day person, and my connection with the openers and closers, and that’s how we made our [Organizing Committee].

Hans: NSLU is not the first union drive at New Seasons. There was a UFCW drive in 2017. There was an [Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)] branch at a couple stores before that. But the reason that NSLU succeeded is that people were a lot more agitated with decision-making from the company. I think the main things that really pissed people off were the company changed how it scheduled people and started having schedules be imposed on departments from corporate in a program called “task-based scheduling.” That took away a lot of the flexibility and forced a lot of people into different jobs. It forced some old timers that were department leads four days a week and couldn’t work more than that to step down, because there was a minimum hours requirement that was part of it.

Janet: I think the other reason why we unionized is because of the attendance issue. We went from a ten-point system, which had some flexibility within that, to a new policy that is very confusing and draconian to the point where if you have five occurrences, you’re basically fired. And if you don’t have [paid time off (PTO)] and you’re sick for two or three days, those are three separate occurrences. And [together] with task-based scheduling, it’s much harder to bank your PTO because they’re always constantly taking that time. There’s people that I’ve known for years that never got in trouble with attendance and are now getting in trouble because of the current situation. And the attendance policy itself is even more confusing.

Hans: If I could give you an anecdote, we’ve been working under this attendance policy for about two years now, and last week a worker at my shop asked me if I understood the policy. I told him pretty confidently, yes. He said that I was the first person. that had said that after he talked to multiple managers and several of his co-workers and both of the chapter reps for his store! It’s definitely been a nightmare and that’s been one of our big issues that we’ve been negotiating over as well.

Paul KD: There have been a lot of broader social issues that have affected grocery workers. Covid, the George Floyd Uprising, and the rise in anti-queer backlash politics, for example. How has that affected your organizing? Has that kind of changed how you think about work?

Hans: I think that both of those historical factors in 2020, the pandemic and the George Floyd Uprising played a very important role. I can speak at least to my shop. Basically, what ended up being our organizing committee were largely people that were going to protest together in 2020. I think that a lot of our organizers first dipped their feet into organizing in response to that killing. So I think that that has definitely been a factor. Is it a part of why a NSLU exists today? Similarly with the pandemic, I think that a lot of those factors are related, so many of our initial OCs were people that realized that they had common interests in 2020 because of those kinds of issues.

Ava: The thing that really sticks out to me about how this stuff has changed over the past few years. There was an incredibly limited window of time in which there was all sorts of rhetoric around respect for essential workers. Admiration for working a customer-facing job, particularly grocery work.

We weren’t working in the ICU, but I certainly felt a level of appreciation for people alongside all of the chaos and upset that people were feeling at the same time. And then that just evaporated. I mean instantly, it just completely disappeared. I think you can’t ignore the impact of the stimulus money that went out, people getting unemployment money, that was more than a lot of people I know had been making prior to that. And then suddenly we’re right back in the situation of being in the forefront of dealing with some level of decaying social structure with none of the money, none of the appreciation. I think that time really set the idea in people’s heads that like, hold on, we do deserve better. We are performing a really essential service for people and that service should be well compensated. I think that kind of ignited in a lot of people that we do deserve better. Because I think one of the hard things about organizing, particularly in the grocery industry, is that you have to convince people that their jobs are worth fighting to save.

Paul KD: One of the reasons I wanted to interview you all is just how much success you’ve had over the last 18 months or so in organizing a totally unorganized grocery store chain to now representing 11 stores out of 20. Now, y’all are in bargaining. Plus, I’m guessing you are doing the stuff that every union has to deal with on a daily basis, dealing with management being crazy on the shop floor. How do you juggle bargaining, new organizing, and dealing with shop floor issues all at the same time?

Hans: The transition to where we are now from where we started is something that’s been smooth and natural for the most part. There’s a few factors that have really allowed us to keep expanding and keep organizing. Every shop that is in NSLU is self-organized. We don’t really provide a lot of support to stores that are in the process of organizing. Once they have an organizing committee we’ll get them authorization cards. Other than that, the workers at that shop have to be the ones that self-organize. That’s how it started at Seven Corners, and that’s how every store has done it. So the workers at each shop are responsible for running their own campaign completely. That’s resulted in a lot of differences in the ways that those are run, and there’s differences between the stores in terms of capability and how big of an OC was needed to affect a win.

We’re operating currently under this National Labor Relations Board law where the Board is finding individual shops as being pretty much always appropriate. That’s the same way that Starbucks is organizing, right? It’s the same way that Trader Joe’s workers are organizing. And that’s a really important part. The NSLU probably would not be possible without that. At least not as a legally recognized majority union. Generally, the way that stores have organized has been very, like momentum swingy. So we tend to file for elections at a very low percent. We have a couple of stores that have filed with a majority, most will actually file for board election with a minority of union authorization cards, which is very uncommon.

The transition from one store organizing to multiple stores organizing to establishing a structure and electing a steering committee and having bargaining ongoing through this process has to do largely with the different capabilities of the stores. Those campaigns have taken very different amounts of time to come to fruition, and that has resulted in this gradual expansion of our union, which has honestly been very helpful. Again, because the responsibility is on the stores it generally will free up organizers after they win their elections to get involved in the like union administration, bargaining, that kind of thing.

Janet: For my shop I think we had one-on-one conversations in the beginning. And then we also coordinated to have at least one captain per department to get some sort of communication going, especially if they couldn’t attend a shop meeting. And that’s how we managed to get over 50% and organize through that. When we got to bargaining, we started just having more one-on-ones. Honestly, I think that’s our main key here. As we try to increase our membership slowly store by store, as we’re doing walkouts, as we make social media posts, that’s just like every little bit of trying to keep up and put out momentum. We just did a rally a few days ago, when all the managers were in one building with our corporate office people. We were just yelling up to them, “We want a contract!”

Ava: I think it really can’t be understated that we were tapping into something that I think was a lot bigger than any of us. I was constantly blown away in the early days of organizing at my store. I go to talk to somebody and I say, “hey, what do you think about a union here?” And they say, “Great, sign me up!” The way that the labor movement has been revitalized recently, we have played a very small regional part in that, but I have to emphasize how much we’re just tapping into something that is so much larger than any of us or what we’re doing.

As organizers, I think we were just the ones to have the free time to wander around at work and say, “Hey, what do you think about this?” I think another thing is that every member at the bargaining table, every member at our union meeting, all of those people are rank-and-file. I suffer the same working conditions as everybody else. I think it would be incredibly difficult for us to have done this work without that. The reason we all care as much as we do is because these are our working conditions too. And that’s not to say that it hasn’t been difficult. It is hard work. But I think the fact that we all are invested in this on a really personal level has been what has kept us going.

Paul KD: Portland’s a little bit different than other U.S cities in terms of its labor movement. Y’all have a big independent union movement, starting from the Burgerville campaign in 2016. Would you mind talking about how the broader labor movement and the independent union movement in Portland has helped NSLU out?

Hans: Burgerville Workers United was technically an IWW campaign, but it was completely run by Burgerville  people. I think the presence of that and its success is something that gave some legitimacy to the idea of this “DIY unionism” in Portland that we maybe wouldn’t have had elsewhere. The other reason that we organized independently was because of the fact that the previous UFCW effort failed. We’ve outgrown Burgerville, and that has led to some challenges. As you get larger and larger membership, it gets harder to keep people engaged. We are somewhat far along in bargaining, but I think that the economic imperative is really important in terms of getting to a contract, right? One of the things that we obviously contend with as grocery workers that some of these other independent unions don’t contend with is that our strike power is a little bit lower. Grocery retail is not super high leverage and it’s very hard to shut down. It’s reasonably easy to find scabs. Most of our transport drivers are not Teamsters, which is not the case actually at Albertsons where their distribution centers are all Teamsters. The independent unions that exist in Portland are almost all clustered around food service, and those are smaller shops, so they’re easier to keep organized to some extent. Where we’ve seen them be really successful, it’s because they have higher leverage as being direct, productive industries.

In terms of the support that we received, obviously there’s been a lot of advice that we’ve been given by organizers that were involved in these independent campaigns which has been helpful. Jobs With Justice, which has a Portland chapter, has been very heavily involved in providing support to independent unions.

Janet: Even if we are progressing bigger than any other independent union out there in terms of the Northwest, I feel like the trend of independent unions also begins with Amazon and Starbucks and Trader Joe’s, those name-brand situations. We have local restaurants that are organizing with a group called Restaurant Workers United. There’s a great amount of support with each other, even if we are further down the line than others.

Ava: When you combine all of these factors and then you have Starbucks Workers United really taking off across the country, and then the massive union win at Amazon, it gives you the idea that you don’t need to wait for somebody to come and give you permission to organize. It made it easier to convince people and organize with people who might previously be skeptical of organization, to say, look, this isn’t some massive organization coming in here and defining your terms of work to you, this is you and your co-workers standing up and making decisions collectively together.

I think the other thing that’s been massive is like the community support that we’ve had, there are so many other independent unions in Portland that we could reach out to. The amount of solidarity from that has been incredible. There are so many organizations doing really incredible work in Portland that are so willing to share resources of any kind, and that makes a massive difference, especially when we’re entirely funded from donations.

Paul KD: Now that you have the majority of stores, I’m guessing bargaining might be getting a little bit more serious. Have y’all been progressing on bargaining? What are your main demands?

Ava: Bargaining has been kind of a mixed bag for us because we got the company to the table really quickly. As we added more and more stores, as the momentum started building for us in an organizing capacity, I think the momentum at the bargaining table has gone the other way. I think the company sees that this might be a problem for them. When it was one or two stores, it was no problem. They gave us the nicety of coming to the table. Now that we have organized, at least a small majority, but at least the majority of the overall workers in the company, I think they’re starting to sweat. That’s happened as we’ve also ramped up our workplace actions against the company. We have every incentive as workers to get this contract done yesterday, and they have every incentive as a company to drag out these negotiations for forever.  We’re making some progress. It’s not to say they’ve completely locked up and we’re not agreeing on anything. Basically at this point we have all of our proposals on the table. And we are just constantly, constantly, constantly waiting on the company to even get back to us at all, let alone get back to us with an offer that isn’t insulting.

Janet: What we’re asking for are shift premiums for overnight workers. We also wanted shift premiums for Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. So the weekends obviously are really busy for grocery stores. But Wednesday is when our seniors come in for their 10% discount, so it’s our busiest day of the week. We proposed for our starting wage to be the living wage. The Portland metro area living wage is $21.85 according to the MIT calculator. We have a tiered system where basic clerks make this much, and then if you’re a lead, you’re paid this much. So for a grocery lead, you would start at $22.50. So that would be what we were proposing. Also, if you are in [an entry-level job], you get 40 cents every six months, but when you get to [higher levels] you get performance raises.

Paul KD: So some people get performance raises, while others get seniority-based raises??

Hans: Yeah. That was actually a result of the last union drive, because that was one of the demands. When I started with the company, there was no guaranteed raise for anybody. The scale was like zero to five percent. And then I think department managers or store managers were only allowed to give out a small handful of four or five percent raises. And as a result of that last union drive, the clerks and leads got guaranteed raises of 80 cents a year which is what it was initially and still is. That hasn’t been adjusted for inflation. But the people that are assistant department managers and above are all performance [based raises]. That scale, I believe, is still zero to five percent. It might be zero to six percent.

Janet: It’s still zero to five. They say zero to six, but no one has ever gotten a six percent raise ever in the history of New Seasons.

The NSLU logo which shows two hands (white and brown) grasping/ shaking in solidarity inset in diamond shaped band. A red banner reading “New Seasons Labor Union” runs across the top of the diamond witha red rose surrounded by two sheaves of wheat at the bottom.
NSLU logo. Image from X.

Paul KD: You mentioned that you’re kind of starting to do store actions, what do those look like? What kind of actions have you been doing? How are y’all keeping track of it across stores?

Hans: Right now, it’s basically a lot of Google Sheets. Stores have organizing committees and there will also be organizing meetings between one or two people from each store organizing committee to coordinate things. But it’s basically just a ton of spreadsheets that all live in our central Google Drive. To go back to the previous question, our economic demands are fairly substantial. We’re demanding a living wage, which, assuming that the pay scales were to stay the same, would be like a 35% raise off the bat from the company. But a lot of what we have been able to accomplish at the bargaining table so far, and a lot of what our demands are structured around, are specifically the non-economics. Because, we can potentially get above-market wages out of the company. But it’s not very substantial if the company can just increase our workloads in order to compensate for that.

So, we’ve already been able to negotiate and reach a tentative agreement on allowing our cashiers to sit down for their entire shift if they want. Which is a very big deal, and it’s the kind of demand that you don’t very often see where you have these entrenched unions that are just there for trying to move the needle a quarter percent on something. That is one of our big wins so far. And then also, getting back to that attendance policy scheduling, and trying to build that work-life balance back up. That was a big part of why our union was able to organize, in addition to the economics.

Ava: We’ve done informational picketing, we’ve done rallies, we’ve done marches on the bus to deliver demands to our store management. Some stores have done walkouts either for a full or a partial day. I see every small action as building towards the big one, right? Eventually contract negotiations are gonna hit a point where we need sustained, well-organized creditables to write a threat to get those final demands that we’re asking for at the table. Everything we’re doing is building towards that as an end goal. I’ve never worked at a union job before this, nor have the overwhelming majority of my co-workers. And so we’re kind of like building that strength and that solidarity together. Building up towards really feeling like your co-workers have your back, a big strike to get the contract is feasible.

Paul KD: Right now, Palestine is a huge issue for a lot of people. I was really happy that along with a growing number of unions, including my own, y’all passed a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. Can you talk about that and why it’s important for y’all?

 Labor for Palestine graphic by Tempest showing a large green fist outlined in red against a smaller outlined image of a large crowd in red, carrying a Palestinian flag and a banner which reads “Workers for a free Palestine.”

Janet: Labor history and political history have always been entwined with each other, whether it’s the gay rights movement, the women’s movement, within the country or internationally. Some people have come up to me like, “why are we involved in this?” And to that, I’d say we are entwined into this. We sell products that are. We have communities that are Palestinian and we have communities that are being affected by this and showing support and solidarity is a step moving forward. And I think that’s really important for a labor union to show solidarity for a group that is being killed every day. So, it’s a good step to begin with.

Ava: I think one of the moments when I was most proud of my union and really felt the strength of being independent was the way that we were able to make that statement after everything started unfolding in Gaza. That resolution was drafted by a member, brought by that member to our All-Store meeting and approved by all of the membership at that meeting. We didn’t have to wait for permission from somebody to go out and do it.

It has caused problems for us with the company. There has been a lot of pushback,  weaponizing DEI language to criticize the union for doing the right thing. But I think overwhelmingly, my coworkers that I speak to are proud of the statement that we made. It was just incredibly important that we as a union were able to feel like we could do the right thing, and make that decision democratically to show our solidarity.

Hans: That issue is something that is of profound importance right now. It’s definitely one of the most pressing political issues in the world right now is the genocide that is happening in Gaza. The fact that the labor movement in this country is willing to take a stand as a moral authority in American politics is something that we really need to have, because we’re certainly not seeing that from the established political parties.

I think that the fact that UFCW 3000 and UE kind of started that initial petition really points to a very bright future for the labor movement, in my opinion. It shows unions reorienting themselves into these issues of national and international importance, and being able to educate and mobilize their membership for that. I think that we’ve also seen a lot of the influence of the left wing of American politics, like DSA for example, in terms of coordinating and supporting labor organizing also serves to fuse together labor and politics when they’ve been split apart gradually over the years. And like I said earlier, so many of our organizers learned how to organize because of George Floyd being murdered. The labor movement is a political movement, right? And I think that seeing a labor movement that is not afraid to assert that and be honest about that is really refreshing and hopefully continues.

Featured image credit: RawPixel; modified by Tempest.

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Paul KD View All

Paul KD is a member of UFCW Local 663, an activist in the labor movement in the Twin Cities, and a member of the Tempest Collective.