James P. Hoffa shook hands with striking workers at US Foods in Severn, fell into step with several on the picket line, then hung a sign around his neck that read: "Wall Street Greed Destroys The American Dream."
Hoffa, general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, brought a message of solidarity on Monday to members of two Teamsters locals that went on strike nearly three weeks ago.
The locals representing about 180 warehouse workers, truck drivers and mechanics say US Foods bargained in bad faith about its decision to close the Anne Arundel County facility in June. The company, which announced tentative plans to close the warehouse last June, made the decision final in April, citing declining sales and an inability to reach an agreement to cut costs with the union.
As members of Local 355 huddled around the high-profile Teamsters leader, Hoffa told them that they are not alone in a struggle to keep good-paying jobs in their community.
"Going to Virginia is like Mexico, same thing," said Hoffa, referring to the company's plans to shift some operations to that state, known for its right-to-work laws. "They want to get away from unions because they don't want to pay the right wages. They don't want to pay the right benefits. They don't want you to have health care.
"They found some guys in Virginia that'll work for less," he said. "We've got to stand together."
The company filed notice with the state in April that it plans to move operations to Pennsylvania and Virginia, and lay off 304 workers in Severn.
"The decision to close a facility is never easy," said Debra Ceffalio, a US Foods spokeswoman, in an email Monday. "However, due to declining case volume in the Washington D.C. area market, the company has been forced to evaluate its costs, service model and customer requirements."
Hoffa, who heads a 1.4 million-member union, said he expected workers at other US Foods facilities to continue holding sympathy strikes at their own plants, designed to make it more costly for the company to operate.
"The one thing they care about is money, money, money," Hoffa said while addressing workers. "They don't care about people. They don't care about your families. ... This is unbelievable what's happening, but it's what's happening everywhere."
The union said locals in Illinois, Michigan, New York and Ohio have honored the Severn picket line for different periods of time. The Teamsters contract with US Foods gives workers the right to honor a primary picket line that's been extended from another location of the same employer.
Ceffalio said the company is trying to work with union leaders to give the Severn workers severance and help with a transition.
"We remain focused on our customers and have contingency plans in place to minimize any disruption that may occur," she said.
A Teamsters spokesman said talks between the union and company are tentatively scheduled to take place after Memorial Day. Union officials said last June the company wanted $8 million in concessions, such as wage cuts and switching from pensions to a 401(k) retirement plan.
Such concessions were just too much to ask, said Charles Grams, who has worked as a delivery driver at the Severn warehouse for 28 years. The 57-year-old Arbutus resident said he is worried about job prospects when he is just five years from retirement.
"We're on strike because they won't negotiate with us," Grams said. "They want to take wages from us. They want to take health and welfare from us. They want to cut into our pension. They can't even hire people for the price they're asking us to work for. It's just not right for the people. ... Now they're going to take everybody's jobs and move all the work to Virginia."
Robert Bateman, a 51-year-old Glen Burnie resident, has been a forklift operator for much of his nearly 21 years with the company and said he had hoped to retire from US Foods.
"It's a big blow," Bateman said.
Moving jobs out of the country or to nonunion facilities amounts to "corporate greed," and a "war on workers," Hoffa said in an interview.
"It really should get people so angry at what's going on in this country," said Hoffa, son of the long-missing union leader Jimmy Hoffa. "These people out here are going to lose their homes."
US Foods is the second-largest food-service distributor in the United States. Formerly called US Foodservice and based in Columbia, the company was acquired in 2000 for $3.6 billion by Dutch grocer Royal Ahold. Ahold sold the company to two private equity firms for $7.1 billion in 2007 after an accounting scandal and turnaround.
Under new ownership, the company moved its headquarters to Illinois and became US Foods. The Severn warehouse is the last Maryland vestige of US Foodservice.