This week, two grocery store workers traveled from Richmond, VA all the way to Amsterdam in the Netherlands in the name of workers’ rights.
Shaquana Battle and George Miles both work for Martin’s Food Markets, which, along with Giant Food, Peapod, and Stop & Shop, is owned by the Dutch company Royal Ahold NV. The two Martin’s employees arrived in Amsterdam to attend the multi-national grocery retailer’s annual shareholders’ meeting, where along with other labor activists, they had the chance to confront Ahold’s CEO Dick Boer and the members of the Supervisory Board. The workers seized this unique opportunity to address the shareholders in attendance. Their message? That Ahold, as a multi-billion dollar company and 8th largest food retailer in the U.S, must end its double standard policy and afford all its employees the same rights, no matter where they work. While two out of three Ahold workers in the U.S. enjoy the benefits and protection of a union contract with the UFCW, the company denies the same right to Shaquana and her coworkers at Martin’s/Giant Carlisle.
Unfortunately, Shaquana and George’s words were met with “denial and evasion” from the corporate owners, according to an In These Times article. Shaquana, who has worked at Martin’s for five years now, noted that Mr. Boer replied to her statement very indirectly. She also was met with a similar response last year, when she attended the 2012 shareholders’ meeting. She has not however, let this discourage her: “they know we are here, and that we are not going away till we get a union,” she said of the Board of Directors.
Shaquana’s determination to protect workers’ rights is what makes her a great leader in the push of her coworkers to organize at Martin’s, and, partnering with the UFCW, she has helped to push back against Ahold’s aggressive anti-union initiatives.
As Ahold continues to grow, it has expanded further into the U.S and Europe. However, instead of continuing to foster a mutually beneficial relationship with workers like it does at its largely unionized Netherlands grocery chain, Albert Heijn, or at its unionized stores in the U.S., the company is investing in non-union stores, at the expense of its employees. The effect of the non-union store expansion is pressure on union stores to reduce pay and benefits of their workers, since their union contracts have allowed them to bargain for good wages and benefits.
An unfortunate example of this race to the bottom strategy was seen last year, when a large unionized distribution center in Jessup, Maryland was shut down in order to transfer the work to non-union sites, where the company can pay workers less. This type of anti-union action was not an isolated event. This past march distribution center workers with the Dutch union group Federatie Nederlandse Vakbeweging (FNV) went on strike against Albert Heijn, because of the chain’s decision to now use temporary, non-union workers. The use of the temp workers not only hurts the union workers, but has also led to mistreatment of the temp workers, who are often submitted to substandard working conditions. Ahold’s anti-union activity was again seen in the U.S. this year, when Stop & Shop recruited strikebreakers in order to scare the striking members of five UFCW locals in New England to make healthcare concessions. Despite the chain’s attempts to bully its union workers, the striking workers stood together and bargained for a new contract, which protected their rights.
For George, frustration comes from his store managers in Richmond, who have discouraged him and his coworkers from joining the UFCW. Having been a union member at his previous place of employment, George says “I know what a union is, and what a union does, so I don’t need these guys to tell me.”
According to George, a majority of his coworkers would like to join the union. George and Shaquana, along with many of their coworkers, know that a union gives them a voice and enables them to protect their rights as workers.
That’s why this was the third year that Shaquana has attended the shareholders’ meeting. Shaquana and her coworkers are standing their ground and making their presence known, to tell Ahold that they are being closely watched and that the workers at Martin’s/Giant Carlisle will not rest until their rights to freedom of association are respected.