UPDATE: December 19, 2019: On Wednesday night, hundreds of United Natural Foods, Inc. workers from warehouses in Hopkins, Minnesota, and Green Bay, Wisconsin, ended their walkout after the wholesaler agreed to resume contract negotiations with workers at its Indiana plant, the Star Tribune reported. Workers at warehouses in Minnesota and Wisconsin had walked off the job in solidarity with Indiana employees who were on strike. UNFI will resume talks in Indiana Thursday to replace an expired contract.
- More than 700 union workers for United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI) walked off the job Tuesday at distribution facilities in Hopkins, Minnesota, and Green Bay, Wisconsin, joining workers who began striking in Fort Wayne, Indiana last week for alleged unfair labor practices, according to a press release.
- The original strike commenced on Dec. 12, affecting areas throughout Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, West Virginia and Kentucky.
- The newly announced strikes bring the total number of workers picketing to more than 1,000.
The dispute between the union workers and UNFI stems from the wholesaler’s 2018 acquisition of Supervalu. Ever since, the distributor has been involved in a number of protracted discussions with the workers at acquired facilities regarding contract renewals. In a statement to the Star Tribune, Tom Erickson, president of Teamsters Local 120, described the issue as concerning the subcontracting of workers, redesigning management rights clauses and not honoring seniority.
In response, UNFI has described the strikes as illegal and poorly timed. It also indicated that the workers are under an active four-year contract and that it is preparing to implement contingency plans to keep its facilities running. UNFI has also stated that workers have refused to sit down with the company for months and that the strikes commenced before UNFI was able to provide a proposed wages and benefits package.
UNFI is the second-largest grocery wholesaler in the country by its count, which means a strike could disrupt grocery supplies in affected areas. The Hopkins, Minnesota facility is one of the largest in the state and supplies Cub Foods, Lunds & Bylerlys and Kowalski's, while the Green Bay facility services Festival Foods. UNFI's largest customer, Whole Foods, accounts for around 21% of its sales.
UNFI, which will hold its annual shareholders meeting Wednesday, has seen its stock price decline some 65% since its acquisition of Supervalu closed last October. The integration has increased debt and negatively impacted margins, but executives say they're focused on long-term growth by way of combined efficiencies and the ability to sell both conventional and natural products.
2019 has been a notable year for labor unrest in food retail. Stop & Shop faced an 11-day strike that had a direct sales impact of more than $200 million. In June, unions representing roughly 47,000 grocery employees in Southern California working at Ralphs, Albertsons and Vons authorized a strike over benefits and wages. The parties reached a deal in early September. In October, Fred Meyer, QFC, Safeway and Albertsons workers in the Pacific Northwest authorized a strike after a year of unsuccessful negotiations.