The sudden announcement by the owner of the Shoppers grocery chain that it will sell 13 stores and close five others in Maryland and Virginia is about far more than the demise of a 40-year pillar of our local economy. It’s about an out-of-town corporation treating area workers, customers and our communities with utter contempt. It’s about hardworking men and women losing good jobs with fair wages and benefits. It’s about families no longer having access to affordable, healthy food in neighborhoods that will now be aptly classified as food deserts.
It pours buckets of salt on multiple wounds with its Grinch-like timing in the midst of the holiday season.
Just over a year ago, the Providence-based United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI) purchased Shoppers’ parent company and immediately announced it had no intention of being in the retail grocery business. Ever since, our unions, United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Locals 400 and 27, which have represented Shoppers employees since its founding, have requested, insisted and demanded to be given information on the fate of these stores over and over again. We have sent multiple letters to the CEO. We have gathered support from elected officials and community leaders, and we have held protests and demonstrations to demand straight answers.
In response, we were met with stone cold silence.
The company’s callous determination to ignore the legitimate concerns of the employees and customers whose hard work and purchases, respectively, made Shoppers profitable is reflected in the grim reality announced on Dec. 6th. We only learned about it mere minutes before the press release went out.
Stores in Baltimore (Liberty Road) and Severn will be closed by the end of January. Last Thursday, we learned the Rockville store will be closed, too. Stores in California and Waldorf have been sold to McKay’s. Five stores — in Baltimore (Anchor Square), Colmar Manor, Capitol Heights and Landover — will be sold to Compare Foods. And stores in Annapolis, Brooklyn Park, Oxon Hill, Takoma Park and Wheaton will be sold to Lidl.
Our collective bargaining agreement with Shoppers, which runs through July 11, 2020, requires buyers in some situations to recognize and uphold the contract, and to continue to employ our members. But we have zero indication that UNFI has informed buyers of this contractual requirement, and ample reason to expect that new owners will try to flout it. To date, all three chains have operated on a non-union basis and followed a low-wage, minimal-benefits business model.
The German-based Lidl, in particular, has earned global notoriety for its abusive labor practices, having been cited for its “uncommon brutality, its mistrust of its own workers and its persistent violations of trade union rights,” by UNI Global Union.
Last week, we were finally able to start meeting with UNFI to negotiate the terms of the sales and closures. We are doing everything in our power to hold the company and store purchasers accountable under the law and our contract. We are making it clear we expect our members in closed stores to receive significant severance pay, continuing health care coverage and job search assistance and retraining. And we are emphasizing that our collective bargaining agreement remains in force.
There is no reason UNFI cannot follow these recommendations and assure us that every Shoppers associate is treated with dignity and respect.
With 25 Shoppers stores remaining open for now, there is also no reason why UNFI cannot provide an open line of communication with us — and with the communities that depend on these stores for fresh food.
We urge area residents who care about good jobs and access to affordable, healthy food to tell UNFI that we are not numbers on a balance sheet to be manipulated for the pleasure of Wall Street investors and analysts. Rather, we are flesh and blood human beings and contributors to our communities, entitled to the dignity of work and the dignity of being able to feed your family.
Let’s rise up together and demand our seat at the table. Let’s take back critical decisions from distant boardrooms and put them where they belong: In our communities.