Tacoma grocery distribution center workers hit with layoffs amid UNFI Centralia move

In February, UNFI announced it would be closing a longtime Tacoma grocery distribution center with plans for a new Centralia site.

The company at that time encouraged workers “to consider joining us at the new facility, and it is our hope they will do so.”

The warm overtures apparently have cooled in the months following that announcement.

A labor dispute between UNFI and Teamsters Local Union 117 over terms of their contract is now in active arbitration, with a ruling expected in early October, a year after United Natural Foods Inc. finalized its $2.9 billion purchase of Supervalu, which included the Tacoma site at 1525 E. D St. in Tacoma.

In the meantime, the site’s Tacoma workers were notified of layoffs Aug. 20. The layoffs will come in four phases, starting Sept. 28 going into December.

In May, a rally and picketing action was organized at the Tacoma distribution center, as the Teamsters at that time said UNFI was not honoring contract language that addresses any move of Tacoma operations to elsewhere in the state.

A copy of the contract language provided to The News Tribune states: “In the event that the employer moves an existing facility to any location within the jurisdiction of Joint Council of Teamsters No. 28, as currently defined excluding current facilities under the jurisdiction of and the service area of Teamsters Local Union No. 690, the terms of this contract shall continue to apply with respect to the new facility.”

The contract language further states: “In addition, all employees working under the terms of this agreement at the old facility shall be afforded the opportunity to work at the new facility under the same terms and conditions and without any loss of seniority or other contractual rights or benefits.”

As of Friday, UNFI had not responded to questions submitted earlier in the week by The News Tribune.

John Scearcy, Secretary-Treasurer of Teamsters 117, which represents workers at the Tacoma site, told The News Tribune in a statement: “We have an active arbitration regarding whether our members have the right to work at the Centralia location under the negotiated terms of their labor agreement. We believe we have clear language that was agreed to by UNFI that requires the company to honor our contract.”

“For UNFI to block our contractual rights is nothing more than a cynical attempt to bust the union and eliminate good union jobs and benefits for working people in and around Tacoma.”

Michael Lee, who has more than 30 years with the Tacoma distribution center, said if the contract isn’t honored, he is worried everyone’s wages and benefits will take a big hit.

I have had two kidney transplants. Supervalu was more than accommodating and supportive through both. I never had to worry about my job or my insurance. If UNFI falls to recognize our current labor agreement in Centralia, retiree medical premiums will skyrocket. I have no idea what I will do if that happens.”

“That is a benefit I counted on being available for over 31 years.”

Before all of this, Lee anticipated he’d be working many more years here.

The Tacoma distribution site has served Saars Marketplace, Metropolitan Markets, Whole Foods, Marlene’s and Thriftway, among others.

The company announced in February that it would close distribution centers in Tacoma, Auburn and Portland, and consolidate operations with a new site in Centralia and expansion of another site in Ridgefield.

If they recognize the contract I would go down to Centralia in a heartbeat,” Lee told The News Tribune. “A vast majority of us would. But it’s just too far to take a massive cut in pay and a ruthless reduction in benefits.”