UPDATE: UNFI plans to fight ruling in contract dispute with Tacoma distribution workers

The gradual ending of operations at the Tacoma UNFI grocery distribution site has been the center of an arbitration battle between workers and the company.

On Monday, the workers won that battle, but that victory was short-lived.

On Wednesday, UNFI told The News Tribune in an emailed statement that it planned to fight the arbitration decision in federal court.

Arbitrator Joseph Duffy on Monday sided with Teamsters Local 117 and Local 313 in a dispute over contract terms.

Local 117 represents about 263 hourly warehouse workers at the Tacoma site, the filing notes.

At issue were terms involving the company’s moving and consolidating operations to Centralia, announced in February. At that time, UNFI issued a statement that said, in part, “During our meetings with our Tacoma and Auburn (distribution center) associates last week, we encouraged all of them to consider joining us at the new facility and it is our hope they will do so.”

The union’s position is that the move of operations should include the opportunity to work at the new site “under the same terms and conditions and without any loss of seniority or other contractual rights or benefits,” according to the arbitration filing.

UNFI, according to the filing, responded that those terms did not apply to the move to Centralia because the new location was outside the “territorial jurisdiction” of the union, among other issues.

It wasn’t long before the two sides headed to arbitration.

Duffy ruled Monday that union members would be allowed to transfer to Centralia “under the same terms and conditions that they have in Tacoma.”

The workers also won transfer rights and back pay for any employees who are facing layoffs, which start later this week and occur in phases.

By Wednesday, it appeared the hope of everything working out was not going to be fulfilled.

In a statement emailed Wednesday morning to The News Tribune, UNFI stated:

UNFI believes the arbitrator’s decision is wrong. In addition to now reviewing all potential actions with the National Labor Relations Board, we’ll pursue our right to appeal in federal court.

“Despite a concerted effort to accommodate our valued associates, we’ve been unable to resolve this matter through bargaining because of what we view as union leadership’s disappointing delays.

“We’ve repeatedly acknowledged the importance of bringing a talented and diverse workforce to our new Centralia distribution center, which replaces three legacy facilities and now plays a critical role helping us serve customers in the Pacific Northwest. This is why we continue to offer Tacoma associates the opportunity to join us there.”

John Scearcy, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters 117, in a statement sent Wednesday via email to The News Tribune, responded:

“It’s unfortunate that UNFI hasn’t communicated to their employees or the union about its apparent decision to appeal the arbitration. However, if confirmed it is another example of the company ignoring clear contract language that it agreed to in negotiations.”

The union referred to the following contract language that notes “the processing, disposition and/or settlement by and between the Union and the Employer of any grievance or other matter shall be absolute and final and binding on the Union and its members, the employee(s) involved and the Employer. Likewise, as to hearings and the final decisions of a Board or Arbitrator.”

Scearcy added: “UNFI’s decision not to honor an impartial arbitrator’s decision, which is final and binding under our labor agreement with UNFI, is further evidence that the company has little regard for its workforce and is more concerned about putting corporate profits over maintaining good, family-wage jobs in our community.”

Brian Lester, a 30-year employee at the Tacoma warehouse, said he’s in the fourth phase of layoffs. He told The News Tribune earlier this week that he was worried UNFI would appeal Monday’s decision.

He also told The News Tribune on Monday that when he did an initial check recently with the state on what his unemployment benefits would be, he learned there was no record of him working the past year, reducing his benefits.

A Teamsters’ statement Tuesday announcing the arbitration victory also made note of the issue.

According to union members facing layoffs at the facility, the company has not reported income for Tacoma employees since December 2018,” it said. “Many are concerned that this will result in a delay or a reduced unemployment benefit.”

Lester hopes the issue is resolved quickly as workers face the first round of layoffs.

“This isn’t just about me,” he said. “This could mean the difference of some workers being able to make a car payment or paying for medication.”

It’s not the first time workers have challenged UNFI in recent months in Tacoma.

In May they held a rally calling on the company to honor their contract.

In July, workers participated in a walkout “after the company was delinquent on health care and retirement payments that the company had agreed to in negotiations,” the Teamsters’ release noted.

In September, workers took to social media to bring attention to the fight for their health care benefits.

On Tuesday, Scearcy was optimistic about Monday’s ruling: “The arbitrator upheld strong language in our contract that protects the rights of our members. Now hundreds of working people will have the opportunity to retain good, family-wage jobs with the same health and welfare protections and retirement security that our Tacoma contract provides.”

As the two sides battle on, what about those not planning to go work in Centralia?

Workforce development director Bill Messenger of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, told The News Tribune via email Tuesday that workers can apply for funds through the state’s dislocated worker program, and, if conditions are met, for retraining purposes, “or as I like to call it, skills upgrade.”

“There is also the possibility of worker retraining funds which are obtained through the local community colleges or vocational institutions that could help pay for some short term training,” he added. “If a worker can combine these two resources it could be possible to attain about a year of retraining dollars while receiving unemployment insurance and other funding dedicated to retraining ... also administered through UI.”

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.

The February consolidation announcement came a few months after United Natural Foods Inc. acquired Supervalu in October 2018 for $2.9 billion.

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. The Centralia site opened this summer.

In an UNFI earnings call Oct. 1, CEO Steve Spinner said the company has begun “optimizing our Pacific Northwest distribution network. As part of that, our new Centralia Distribution Center is now operational and will be completely transitioned out of Tacoma by the end of this month.”

Spinner said on the call that the Tacoma site “is expected to be sold later this month for approximately $43 million.”

“We’ve completed the transition from Auburn to Ridgefield in September, which leaves us only the move from Portland into Centralia, which should be complete in our second quarter.”