Labor Pains: How grocery strikes impact communities – and it’s not what you think

There has been a strange charge in the air at several major Seattle area grocery stores these past few weeks. Employees at regional chains Fred Meyer and QFC (both owned by national grocer Kroger), plus Albertson’s and Safeway have been working without a contract since May. Contract negotiations began in February, and came to a head earlier this month when labor overwhelmingly rejected a contract that one local meat cutter described as “laughable.”

Management and the union are back at the negotiation table as I write, but it’s clear that workers in the trenches – the people who put out your produce, scoop your deli, cut your meat and process your transactions – are expecting to hit the picket line any day. As in, just in time for Thanksgiving.

This blog post is not about the issues behind the strike, however. It’s about the far-reaching ramifications that a strike could have – and how strike supporters can help alleviate them.

ISSUE: Food Bank donation bins don’t get filled. Food banks across the country are in dire need year-round, but are often forgotten except for the November/December time frame. Food bank bins appear at almost all of the chains set to be affected by the strike. Fewer customers to those stores that heavily promote charity bins will result in lower donations. Out of sight, out of mind. And yes, there are plenty of alternative grocery stores – including some I will be patronizing myself – that do not sponsor food drives.

SOLUTION: Donate cash to your local food bank. Food banks can stretch your dollar farther than you can at your local grocery store, so donating cash is always appreciated. They can also use it to buy perishable items (e.g., fresh meat, milk and vegetables) that are in great need but cannot be deposited in the bins.

ISSUE: School gift card sales lag. Gift card sales are a big fundraiser for area schools, including our son’s elementary. We have routinely stocked up on Fred Meyer/QFC cards to have on hand for weekly groceries, including a handful purchased before summer break. The gift card team recently promoted the idea of stocking up on gift cards for several grocery store chains – including strike targets – before doing the Thanksgiving shopping. We have stopped buying the cards in anticipation of a strike, meaning dollars spent there (pre-strike or if the strike is averted) won’t go to our school.

SOLUTION: Think outside the grocery store box. Assuming your school uses a fulfillment program, you can get much more than grocery store cards. Our program also offers many major restaurant chains (Red Robin and Outback Steakhouse), retailers (Gap) and even online gift cards (iTunes and Amazon.com). Our school’s program even carries gift cards for online services, such as iTunes and Amazon.com, that can be slipped into a card for an easy gift.

ISSUE: Older citizens have limited mobility – and their local store is on strike. Several stores likely to be hit by the strike also serve a large senior citizen group. Being the home of Boeing (among others), Seattle has a lot of old school union supporters who will shop at 7-11 before they cross a picket line. This has been evident in the past week, as older citizens have been filling their carts with large volumes of non-perishables – much more so than the average shopping trip. I heard one gentleman apologize in advance for crossing the picket line – he’s on a tight budget, and can’t travel to other areas.

SOLUTION: Have a heart. If you know someone who would prefer not to cross the picket line but can’t get to a store outside of the strike, offer them a ride. Or, at minimum, do not judge them if they do cross the line. While some may not care, others may be feeling the pain deeply enough without being called names.

ISSUE:  Non-striking stores are packed on Thanksgiving. We ordered a pre-cooked turkey from a local Top Foods, which is not involved in the current labor dispute. I requested a morning pick-up to ensure we had plenty of time to cook, and also mentioned that we wanted the deli worker to be able to go home, too. She sighed deeply and said, only half-jokingly, “I’m not sure I WILL get to go home Thursday.”

 The managers at the non-disputed stores no doubt see the strike as an opportunity to pick up new customers, and are pressuring their workers to make this the best, brightest holiday ever for all their new (albeit temporary) clientele. The deli worker seemed to anticipate staying past closing time to ensure every customer is served. It would not surprise me a bit.

SOLUTION: Be on time… and patient. Be thankful you don’t have to work Thanksgiving – and give those that do a break. Don’t show up two minutes before the store closes and insist you “just need one thing.” Check your pantry when you get up and make the last minute trip early in the day. Take something to entertain yourself in line, and be nice to the workers.

Come to think of it, that’s good advice even when there isn’t a strike.

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