Last fall, all members of Local 1459 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) in Western Massachusetts received a peculiar letter. All that Iris Scott, a shift leader and union shop steward at the River Valley Food Co-op in Easthampton, can remember about it is that it was brief: “It was kind of just letting us know that, hey, there’s an international [UFCW] convention happening this April. It happens once every five years,” Scott told The Real News. Each local would be sending delegates and alternates to the Las Vegas convention, and rank-and-file UFCW members could nominate people—or themselves—for the positions.
Scott and a few of their union siblings didn’t know much about the union beyond their own local, but decided to throw their hats in the ring. Why not try to get their voices heard in the international union? Uncontested, Scott and another co-op coworker got the delegacy.
Within a couple weeks, a colleague sent Scott an article from the labor movement publication Labor Notes. The piece highlighted that a new reform group had emerged within the union called Essential Workers for a Democratic UFCW—which would later morph into Essential Workers for Democracy—and it was looking to shake things up a bit at the convention.
A “coalition of rank and filers, local leaders, and not-yet-union workers,” the article read, was demanding an end to the undemocratic rule of the international union by instituting one-member-one-vote elections for top officers; a shift in resources from bloated consultancy budgets and local president salaries toward a massive investment in new organizing to meet the rising interest and need for unions during the COVID pandemic; and a turn to coordinated bargaining across union shops, instead of isolated labor agreements that have failed to do right by workers at monopolized retailers. UFCW International did not respond to requests for comment before publication.
“I read that article and it was pretty illuminating for me,” Scott explained. “There’s something bigger here and I need to be a part of it.” For Scott, that “something” was not just rising militancy in their own union, but a national labor movement snowballing towards full-blown resurgence.
Across the country, workers are rising up. Stealing headlines are those over the past three years who have organized their workplaces for the first time, either through their own independent unions like the Amazon Labor Union and Trader Joe’s United, or with the backend support of established labor, like Starbucks Workers United.
But this special “labor moment” isn’t only defined by new organizing. Perhaps most significant are the militant rank-and-file reform movements gaining ground in some of the US’s most powerful legacy unions. They want to reverse the effects of decades of corruption and concessions, pro-company complacency, and a repugnance for organizing the unorganized—a state of affairs that forced thousands off unions’ membership rolls.
“The unfortunate reality is that there’s been a sort of calcification in the labor movement for many decades,” Eric Blanc, an assistant professor of labor studies at Rutgers University, told TRNN. Following World War II, unions bureaucratized, grew fatally dependent on the Democratic Party, and lost the militancy needed to defend against the corporate offensive of the neoliberal era.
“For the most part unions haven’t been transformed sufficiently to meet this new context, and to meet the more militant, more radical orientation that a lot of younger workers are bringing to the movement,” Blanc said.
Despite these conditions, there is reason for optimism. In the past few years, internal union reform movements have successfully pushed for leadership overhauls at two of the country’s largest and most powerful private sector unions. In 2021, the rank-and-file movement Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) was instrumental in breaking the chain of pro-corporate top officers at the 1.2 million-member Teamsters union. Workers elected a more aggressive leadership that has vowed to organize Amazon, and to turn back two decades of concessions in the UPS labor contract—the largest private sector collective bargaining agreement in the country. Five weeks remain before contract expiration, and the Teamsters have walked away from the bargaining table after UPS presented a counterproposal on economic issues the union described as unserious and “disrespectful.”
Formed in response to a string of federal corruption charges brought against several United Auto Workers (UAW) officials, the Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD) caucus fought successfully in the union’s first one-member-one-vote election of top officers in 2022 and 2023 to elect a slate of reformers. The reform caucus-backed slate, Members United, took control of the executive board and the presidency. Top priorities for the new leadership include the abolition of tiered workforces across auto companies, reinstating the union’s lost and cherished cost-of-living wage increases, and organizing the rapidly expanding and mostly non-union electric vehicle and battery industries.
Both the Teamsters and the UAW have vowed to lead their largest shops out onto the picket line this year should their workers’ demands not be inked into new labor contracts. That means 340,000 Teamsters at UPS are poised to launch the largest single-employer strike in US history in August, and 150,000 auto workers could walk out of the profit-flush Big Three automakers (GM, Ford, and Stellantis) just six weeks later in September.
The energy such actions could pump into the labor movement is mind boggling. As the labor scholar Barry Eidlin argued in a piece for Jacobin, the most promising element of this recent uptick in labor activity is workers’ rejection of top-down staff unionism in favor of worker-led organizing. It has manifested in the rise of independent unions, but also in the recent successes of union reform movements, which have presented the labor movement an opportunity to grow by “institutionalizing insurgency.” That is, consolidating and furthering workers’ wins through unions’ organizational structure without suppressing their militant spirit.
“Union reform movements are absolutely essential for any chance at sustained labor revival,” Blanc said. “It’s hard to see a path to turning around decades of union decline without the resources, staff and power that these unions used to have and could potentially rebuild.”
Could the UFCW, the 1.2-million-member behemoth of largely low-wage retail, meatpacking, healthcare and other workers, be the next to rise?
When rank-and-file members went to the UFCW convention, which was held at the gaudy Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas in April, the first thing they noticed was the yelling. “They were being aggressive, yelling at us in the hallway.” said Mike McDonald, a pediatric emergency room technician in Spokane, Washington and a convention alternate.
McDonald stood among roughly 75-100 rank-and-file reformers at the convention, largely from his home UFCW Local 3000 in the northwest, the union’s largest local and the heart of the burgeoning reform movement. The yellers were supporters of Marc Perrone, who has been the international’s president since 2014, and they were yelling the name of his election slate, “Members First.” At the convention, Perrone would be elected yet again to the top job, alongside dozens of others on the slate to the executive board.
“Elected,” of course, is a subjective word. Perrone and his slate were “elected” not by the membership, but through an indirect delegate system that Local 3000’s secretary-treasurer described to Hamilton Nolan for In These Times as “the Electoral College system on steroids.” Under it, not only do small locals wield disproportionate power, but according to the reformers, a solid majority of the convention delegates—the yellers—were not rank and file, but union staff and officers.
Seeing so few rank and filers in international leadership and in the convention’s delegacy, workers in the reform group say it only reaffirmed their central demand: one-member-one-vote elections of the union’s top officers.
One member, one vote
Direct elections of international leadership is a rarity among US unions. Federal investigations into the corruption of Teamsters and UAW leadership ultimately brought one-member-one-vote to both unions. However, in both cases, it was the reform movements embodied in TDU and UAWD that successfully pushed for direct leadership elections, rather than outright government trusteeship, as the solution to the corruption scandals that had overtaken their unions.
In their first one-member-one-vote election in 1991, the Teamsters elected the militant, TDU-backed candidate Ron Carey, who brought a sea change to a union that to many had grown synonymous with the mafia. TDU was the same movement that helped bring the reform-minded Sean O’Brien to power in 2021. At the UAW, the UAWD caucus successfully pushed a member referendum for direct elections of union officers, which passed and led to the election of all the reformers’ preferred candidates in 2022 and 2023. Democracy in both unions has opened the door for change.
“There are things that need to fundamentally change in this union from our approach to bargaining, organizing, and education/training members and leaders to strike prep,” wrote Brandon Mancilla, a UAWD caucus member and the elected director of UAW Region 9A, in a Facebook message to TRNN. “And of course this is also our chance to finally turn the page on the corruption that has brought our union down by implementing more accountability and membership control over our union.”
In the UFCW, the analog reform organization may be the emergent Essential Workers for Democracy (EW4D). A nonprofit formed out of the efforts of rank and filers and UFCW Local 3000’s President Faye Guenther, EW4D positions itself as an independent organization pushing unions—not exclusively the UFCW—to meet the moment: to channel a building excitement and dire need to organize the country’s “essential workers,” and to raise the standards of their employment. “Essential workers want a union that fights for them,” Guenther told The Real News. “They don’t want to be essential workers and also homeless.”
The organization is helmed by long-time unionist Steve Williamson, whose time as a TDU activist and staff director at Teamsters Local 174 in the 1990s informs his work today. “I experienced first hand one member one vote. Ever since then, I’ve just been a champion for it,” Williamson told TRNN. “With real democracy, workers will make their own choices. They know their lives, they know the corporations they work for. They will make choices that will revitalize this movement.”
Democracy is one of the four pillars of worker power EW4D pushed for at the convention in the form of constitutional amendments. The introduction of constitutional amendments, like in the Teamsters and UAW, could open the floodgates for the three other pillars: a commitment to organizing, coordinated bargaining, and strike readiness.
Since 2014, Perrone’s tenure has yielded a net loss of over 100,000 UFCW members. While membership decline did not begin under his watch, a remarkable ballooning of questionable spending and saving of union funds certainly did. The UFCW is prototypical of the trend union researcher Chris Bohner has critiqued: “fortress unionism.“
Under the strategy, financial asset growth—rather than membership growth—reigns. According to Bohner, despite the six-digit membership loss, UFCW member dues and other revenues have generated millions in annual budget surpluses. While net assets have risen from $199 million to $521 million since Perrone took control of the union, only a small fraction of spending has been allocated to organizing and strike benefits. According to an EW4D analysis, “UFCW International could hire 500 new organizers per year for the next five years, at a cost of $250 million, and still have $170 million in liquid assets left over, not counting investment income.”
Many locals around the country haven’t done much better. According to Guenther, nearly a third of all workers organized by the UFCW through NLRB elections since 2020 were organized by one local—her Local 3000—but its workers only comprise 5% of the union’s total membership. EW4D proposed an amendment to UFCW’s constitution that would up the budget requirement for organizing to 20%, but it was not passed.
Guenther says that non-unionized workers have explicitly told her the old-school, undemocratic nature of the UFCW has dissuaded their affiliation, and McDonald told TRNN that he believes the rise of independent unions is a sign of lost opportunities for his union. “Amazon and Stabucks—they’re creating their own unions,” he said. “They’re not choosing one that’s already existing and I think the UFCW has the potential to do that. You just need to invest.”
Rank-and-file members have also drawn attention to the exorbitant salaries of UFCW leadership around the country, which EW4D wants to cap at $250,000. An investigation by the group found the top ten highest paid local presidents enjoyed salaries between $349,643 and $700,941 in 2022.
“The flip side of that is probably a majority of their members are struggling to make a living wage,” said Scott from Local 1459. A UFCW-funded survey last year found that 14% of Kroger workers say they’ve been homeless in the past year and reported average wages of less than $30,000 per year.
The UFCW has also spent millions of dollars on a single consulting firm, Park Street Strategies, which brands itself as working for labor as well as large corporations. According to the reform caucus, UFCW spent $21 million on the firm in 2021. They have pointed to the highly spurious utility of this consultancy. For example, the firm reportedly advised union staff to scrap the words “strike” and “collective bargaining” from their conversations with workers in 2016, according to Chris Brooks in an article for Jacobin.
Coordinated bargaining is also a huge issue for EW4D as the UFCW faces down an increasingly monopolized grocery industry. The strength of national grocery chains against the regional contracts of organized labor was put on full display when 70,000 UFCW members were forced into concessions after the Southern California supermarket strike of 2003-2004. Retail corporations have only grown in strength since, and the UFCW International’s delayed statement of public opposition to a potential Krogers-Albertsons merger signaled to workers that their union was out of touch with their needs and interests.
“I don’t know what our next contract negotiation will look like,” Zachary, a clerk at Kroger and UFCW Local 1059 member in Columbus, Ohio, told TRNN in November last year. Zachary requested his last name be omitted for fear of retaliation from his employer. “I find it scary because a lot more power is about to consolidate into Kroger’s hands. If things continue as they are now, I feel like we’re gonna feel even more powerless than we already do.”
By coordinating bargaining, UFCW may be able to confront emergent monopolies with greater leverage. “We have to set aside our little fiefdoms and unify our resources,” advocated Guenther.
While no amendments related to EW4D’s first three pillars were passed at the convention, some ground was made on strike readiness. The reform group sought a raft of amendments to unleash workers’ currently restricted ability to strike, such as removing the requirement to receive approval from the strike-averse International president. Reformers also wished to begin strike pay on day 1 instead of day 14. Reformers were unsuccessful in securing Day 1 strike pay, but a small victory was achieved when they were able to strike a compromise to begin on Day 8, as well as ensure that it would be extended to workers fighting for a first contract.
Other victories included the creation of an official division for healthcare workers—a growing sector of the union—and electing one reformer to the executive board. In addition to these smaller wins, the biggest victory may have been simply giving public voice to a growing discontent in the union. Guenther says that there’s been an explosion of interest from workers all around the country. “The convention felt like a kickoff,” she said. “But now workers want a union that will fight.”
According to Guenther and Williamson, the next steps will be hosting a convention for essential workers in the lead up to the 2024 Labor Notes conference, and building a five-year strategic plan for the next convention in 2028, including running a slate of candidates with the intention to win. (This year, Guenther ran on a slate named “Meet the Moment” alongside other reformers without the expectation of winning, and pulled out prior to the convention.) EW4D’s goals are ambitious, but they’re determined to see them through.
The reform movements at the UAW and the Teamsters were decades in the making, and according to Blanc, their recent successes may be a testament to workers recognizing reformers’ legitimacy. “Worker-led victories created pressure and raised expectations that allowed the reformers to win the arguments internal within their union,” Blanc said. Bottom-up organizing, like the teachers strikes of 2018 and 2019, “put the strike back on the table—put back on the table labor as a fighting movement,” he added. “That’s the spirit that these reformers brought and that is their vision of unionism.”
Notwithstanding federal intervention, UFCW reformers may have to win full democracy in their union through other means. Guenther says that EW4D is preparing to force one-member-one-vote on the union through a lawsuit against the international, which they claim is violating members’ democratic rights legislated in the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act.
Legal strategies aside, workers understand that sustained rank-and-file organizing will be central to the struggle. “Labor’s an ongoing fight,” said McDonald. “A little bit of reform in the UFCW is not a bad thing. Just like Teamsters did, you know?”