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Movement for union democracy comes to UFCW

According to People’s World:

The movement for union democracy, campaigning for directly elected leaders who are much more accountable to members, has come to the United Food and Commercial Workers, the AFL-CIO’s third-largest union.

A growing group of workers, “Essential Workers for Democracy,” or, is campaigning for reforms in the 1.2-million-member union. Other challenging groups have joined them. EWD put together a slate of challengers to current board members to achieve its goals.

About the only question left open is whether one of its slate will challenge union President Marc Perrone for the top job at UFCW’s convention in Las Vegas, which opened April 24 and runs for four days.

“There will be enthusiasm for this and we want to get as many rank-and-file members and even some local union leaders to come to us and say we want to be part of this change in UFCW, but it doesn’t just stop there,” first-time convention delegate Iris Scott, daughter of a UFCW member, said in a video on EWD’s website.

“I think we want to push for some of these changes at the convention, but knowing this is going to be a longer fight and we need to, you know, just kind of spread the word. And we want our workers in every single local in the U.S. and Canada feel like they have a voice. I’m really excited about that.,” the member from Massachusetts-based Local 1459 added.

Together, the challengers advocate direct one-member one-vote elections of top officers, including the president and the board, ending the president’s power to veto strike authorizations, limiting the pay of top officers, requiring top officers to serve at least three years in local union office first, and putting more money—at least 20% of UFCW’s budget–into organizing, among other causes.

“All UFCW members deserve the right to strike and pay on the first day of a strike,” EWD declares. That echoes rising militancy among workers, especially exploited and low-paid workers, nationwide. EWD members paraded through the convention hall lobby on its first day chanting “Strike pay! First day!”

And after all, their website points out, there are 191,000 unorganized grocery workers in chains UFCW should target, including Amazon. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, a UFCW sector tried, twice, to organize the big Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala.

RWDSU lost heavily the first time due to rampant Amazon labor law-breaking. The National Labor Relations Board threw out that election and ordered a rerun. RWDSU trailed narrowly, but the number of challenged ballots exceeded Amazon’s margin. The board has yet to decide the outcome.

Plowing more funds and energy into organizing will lead to “the best contracts” and more power for workers, the challengers’ slate says.

The new dedicated organizing money wouldn’t be scattershot either. EWD demands it go into “strategic organizing” and “coordinated bargaining” by UFCW locals all facing the same firm.

Even if the challengers don’t run against Perrone, their movement for democracy within the UFCW echoes successful similar movements at two other big unions—the Teamsters and the Auto Workers—and at the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, a Teamsters sector.

Key features of all three democracy movements are direct election of officers and demands for more openness and accountability, along with resentment by rank-and-file members of what they deemed too great willingness by incumbents to accede to corporate demands.

As a result, popular votes toppled two of the three incumbent presidents, at UAW and BLE&T. The third, the Teamsters’ Jim Hoffa, chose to retire after narrowly winning re-election four years before. Local 25 member Sean O’Brien, an executive board member whom Hoffa had frozen out, clobbered Hoffa’s handpicked successor in the ensuing one Teamster-one vote election in 2020.

Accountability, or lack of it, at UFCW showed up in the complaint of another insurgent group, Chicago-based Reform UFCW. It noted the union’s net assets increased from $199 million the year Perrone became president to $521 million now. “Are we a union or a hedge fund?” it asks.

The Essential Workers for Democracy chose that name because hundreds of thousands of UFCW members—slaughterhouse workers, poultry pickers, grocery workers and warehouse workers—were deemed “essential” at the height of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

They were lauded then and some of their employers even awarded workers hazardous duty pay, at least at the start. But the extra dollars soon vanished and most bosses turned the back of their hands to their “essential” workers, particularly in the slaughterhouses.

The nadir came in Waterloo, Iowa in mid-2020. Bosses at the UFCW-represented Tyson pork slaughterhouse rejected Black Hawk County health officials’ strong recommendations that it close for two weeks for deep fumigation after an outbreak. The bosses also set up a betting pool on how many workers would get sick, and how many would die. The answers were 1,000, six, and one big lawsuit in federal court. The wrongful death suit by the families later lost, In These Times recently reported.

Perrone was angry, verbally. But the then-president of UFCW Local 431, which represents that plant’s workers, did little. He later lost re-election to a young legal migrant union organizer from sub-Saharan Africa with a law degree. The former local president is symbolic of UFCW under Perrone. The union’s also lost 110,000 members in the last eight years, the slate contends.

“We face great threats to the industries in which we work,” the slate warned in an open letter to convention delegates before the conclave began. “We believe if we invest in our members and invest in organizing the unorganized, we can build UFCW into a strong union for all Essential Workers.

“We know the challenges we face. Essential Workers do not make enough money. We need affordable quality healthcare for all. We need strong pensions so we can retire with dignity. We need safe workplaces. We deserve respect. Together, we can build the UFCW that Essential Workers are calling for and deserve.

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