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Unfair labor practices force strike at United Natural Foods

Workers at the United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI) distribution center in Auburn went on strike Monday evening in response to the company's refusal to negotiate over mandatory subjects of bargaining and other unlawful actions, the union said.

Picket lines were established at 7 p.m. at the center, 22 30th St. NE.

"UNFI is not the company it pretends to be. Instead of upholding its stated commitment to sustainable practices and social responsibility, UNFI is mistreating its workers and demonstrating a complete disregard of federal labor law," said Tracey A. Thompson, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 117.

The National Labor Relations Board is investigating UNFI for 45 violations of federal labor law. The charges include allegations that UNFI engaged in worker surveillance, intimidation and retaliation, that it refused to bargain in good faith, and that it illegally reassigned bargaining unit work, theĀ union said.

Negotiations between UNFI and its 165 represented warehouse workers and drivers began earlier this year. According to the union, a major sticking point in negotiations has been the company's refusal to fulfill its legal obligation to bargain over the large compensation gap between UNFI and other major grocery distributors in the area.

UNFI employees perform the same work as other workers in the grocery warehouse industry, yet it compensates its employees at a rate of 25-percent less than the compensation provided to the major unionized grocery warehouse and distribution workers in the Puget Sound region, the union said.

"UNFI is raking in record profits while refusing to provide middle-class workers and their families their fair share of the profits," Thompson said.

UNFI's revenues have increased 83 percent in the last five years, according to the union, and it has maintained an average profit margin of over 18 percent during that time. UNFI's most recent financial statements disclose that its income increased 20.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012.

The contract for union members at UNFI expired on Feb. 29, 2012; an extension agreement expired at the end of August. Since negotiations began, UNFI has erected security fences, hired guards, and brought replacement workers into the warehouse to serve as a secondary workforce.

"The success of this company was built off our backs. But rather than treating us with respect, UNFI is spending hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars to intimidate us into accepting a substandard proposal," said Robert Jurey, a 13-year warehouse worker at UNFI.

Before the strike began, Teamsters Local 117 picketed UNFI delivery trucks at the US Foods distribution center in Fife on Dec. 5, alerting UNFI and its customers of the possibility that a strike was imminent.

The Teamsters also picketed UNFI trucks on Dec. 6 at the Safeway distribution center in Auburn and at the SuperValu distribution center in Tacoma. When picketing commenced at each location, Local 117 sent notice of the picketing and unfair labor practice dispute with UNFI to the three companies.

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