Tacoma labor fight persists as grocery distributor appeals ruling that went workers’ way

National grocery distribution company UNFI has filed an appeal against a recent arbitration decision that ruled in favor of union workers at its Tacoma site.

In the ruling, arbitrator Joseph Duffy sided with Teamsters Local 117 and Local 313 in a dispute over contract terms tied to the transfer of work from Tacoma to Centralia.

The company now argues that if it carried over the workers’ current contract terms it would create a two-tiered employee status with a different wage and benefit structure applied to transferred Tacoma workers as opposed to non-union employees already working in Centralia.

The union feels its arbitration victory will be upheld and is holding firm on protecting its workers.

“We are equally confident that our members will be made whole for any losses incurred as a result of being unlawfully laid off,” said John Scearcy, secretary-treasurer of Teamers Local 117, which represents the workers.

According to the union, more than 70 UNFI Tacoma employees have been laid off so far, with the remaining workers to be let go in the next 30 days.

Scearcy added, “The union has filed a new grievance contesting UNFI’s failure to live up to its contractual obligation to honor a mutually selected neutral arbitrator’s ‘absolute and final and binding’ decision, and we will seek an order affirming that decision.”

Scearcy told The News Tribune that the two sides were scheduled to meet Thursday and Friday to continue negotiating severance packages for the workers who are not seeking any continued employment with UNFI.

UNFI filed the appeal this week in U.S. District Court. The company told The News Tribune shortly after the arbitration ruling in early October that it planned to appeal.

Jill Sutton, UNFI’s chief legal officer, general counsel and corporate secretary, said in a statement: “While UNFI remains confident that there is a path to reaching a consensual agreement with our valued associates in Tacoma, we also believe that the arbitrator’s recent decision is unlawful and flawed because we cannot extend union contract terms — in blatant violation of federal requirements — at our non-union Centralia distribution center.

“It completely contradicts regulatory and labor law principles to force UNFI to create a wage and benefit structure that would apply to one set of employees and not others with the same positions and responsibilities in Centralia.”

She also stated that the company “is continuing to offer associates in Tacoma the stability of joining us in Centralia on the competitive terms currently in place at that distribution center. We are also still offering these individuals strong relocation packages and an ability to obtain the benefits of the arbitration ruling if it is upheld after appeals are concluded.”

The union disagrees with that assessment.

According to Scearcy, “UNFI has ruthlessly threatened the livelihoods of more than 200 employees and their families. The majority of those workers formally requested transfers to the Centralia facility months ago, yet those requests have been completely ignored by the company.”

UNFI maintains that it supports its workers.

“We firmly believe that the events of the past year have proven that UNFI remains very much pro-labor and pro-associate while adapting its business to today’s economic realities and customer expectations,” said Paul Green, UNFI’s chief supply chain officer.

“We must have labor agreements that allow us to be flexible and nimble in a rapidly changing food distribution environment.”

Another issue that came to light as the layoffs started happening this month is that workers discovered earnings had been unreported for several previous quarters amid the Supervalu/UNFI changeover, lowering their potential claims for unemployment.

On Tuesday, Sutton told The News Tribune: “This was an administrative error, it has been corrected. We apologize for the concern this error created and it has now been rectified.”

A message left with a representative of the Employment Security Department to confirm Sutton’s statement was not immediately returned.

The Tacoma distribution center, formerly Supervalu and before that West Coast Grocery, has served Whole Foods Market, Saars Marketplace, Metropolitan Markets, Marlene’s and Thriftway, among others.

United Natural Foods Inc. acquired Supervalu in October 2018 for $2.9 billion. In February, it announced a consolidation of its Pacific Northwest sites, and that it would close its distribution centers in Tacoma, Auburn and Portland and consolidate operations via a new Centralia site and an expanded site in Ridgefield.

UNFI told The News Tribune that the Centralia site, which opened this summer, already has about 200 employees in Centralia, “heading toward approximately 500.”

Terry Joe Womack is a truck driver from Arkansas who said he has delivered to Supervalu on a weekly basis for the past four years. Womack told The News Tribune in early October that the changeover to Centralia has been rough.

“The time to be received just for three or four pallets is four hours,” he said.

It was much faster in Tacoma, Womack said.

“We were out in less than an hour,” he said. “The workers in Tacoma knew what they were doing and did it in a timely manner. The Tacoma union workers should be brought to Centralia.”

Green, in response to the lag times, said: “UNFI is continuing to ramp up in Centralia and has been making solid progress. Once we are fully phased and at full inventory levels, we will be able to maximize all of the facility’s tremendous advantages and efficiencies.”