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Rite Aid Workers Are Gaining Ground in The Fight For A Union

As Rite Aid bigwigs dawdle, workers are gathering nationwide support for their rights.
 
 
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As debates behind closed doors in Congress look to compromise the Employee Free Choice Act, attention is turning to a million-square-foot warehouse in California’s Mojave Desert town of Lancaster.

Inside the giant complex, more than 550 employees work shifts around the clock, picking merchandise to ship to several hundred Rite Aid stores throughout six Southwestern states. For many observers, the three-year campaign by workers to join a union—and the employer’s blistering response—has become the poster child for the need to reform federal labor laws and restore workers’ freedom to join a union.

Carlos Rubio was active early in the organizing drive. He had loved his job and later told a reporter, “I put in so many hours my wife thought I was cheating.” But after new management came in, everything changed. “They talked to you like you were a kid,” he said, adding they told workers, “If you don’t like it here, you can work at McDonald’s.”

Pay wasn’t a top issue for most workers—whose pay was better than many low-wage jobs in the high-desert community. But working in the warehouse had other problems that seemed a big step down from fast food. Workers faced triple-digit heat in the summer and freezing temperatures in the winter, a lack of job security, and production demands they considered arbitrary and unsafe.

Management also insisted on mandatory, last-minute overtime that was unmanageable for many families.

In spring 2006, Rite Aid workers contacted the Longshore Workers (ILWU) Local 26 and started organizing. Rite Aid responded with an all-too-familiar heavy hand, threatening, harassing, and firing employees who supported the union.

PENALTIES ARE TOOTHLESS

The National Labor Relations Board was prepared to charge Rite Aid with 49 violations of federal labor laws two years ago. But instead of facing a trial before an NLRB judge, Rite Aid was allowed to settle the charges with a typical slap on the wrist.

Rite Aid was only required to rehire several workers who had been illegally fired or suspended, and had to provide back wages minus any wages the workers had earned to survive in the meantime.

Rite Aid was also required to post a notice in the plant for 60 days, promising not to violate the laws again—a promise they broke almost immediately.

Despite management’s attacks, workers pressed on. Rubio and dozens of his co-workers spent hundreds of hours organizing the union, designing and distributed scores of their own flyers, and putting together events. Their campaign went to a vote in March 2008, and a majority chose “union yes” by a vote of 283-261.

The union victory was the largest organizing victory for warehouse workers wanting to join the ILWU in many years. And as predicted, it brought on the next phase of union-busting: Endless foot-dragging that employers often use to delay a contract for a year, when it becomes legal to decertify the union if a contract is not reached.

Rite Aid has met with the workers’ negotiating committee 30 times, and has agreed to little more than bulletin boards, seniority, and a few minor issues—just enough to claim that they’re “bargaining in good faith.”

Meanwhile, Rite Aid continues to engage a notorious anti-union consulting firm, Oliver J Bell and Associates, which is now guiding a small group of employees and coordinating a decertification petition drive.

Rank-and-file negotiating committee members have organized a petition of their own saying they want the company to reach a union agreement. More than 360 have signed.

SURVIVAL STRATEGIES

In December, Rite Aid’s distribution center employees sent their worker representative to attend the company’s emergency shareholder meeting in New York. CEO Mary Sammons received their invitation for her to visit the Rite Aid's distribution center in Lancaster.