No end in sight for downtown IGA picketers

// Union organizers say they’ll continue picketing indefinitely; store director says pickets are helping the business

long-brewing dispute from another Washington city that started nine years ago is playing out in Tacoma most weekdays, as union picketers in front of Tacoma City Grocer on Pacific Avenue have become a familiar sight to the many people who live, work or shop in downtown. The two sides in the feud have different views on what impact the picketing has on the bottom line of the business.

The store opened last September in Pacific Plaza in the former location of the South Park parking garage owned by the city of Tacoma. The city and developers formed a partnership to renovate the aging structure, adding office space to the upper floors and new retail space at street level.

Downtown had lacked a grocery store for many years. As new apartment and condominium projects boosted the number of people living downtown, demand for a conveniently located grocery increased. The developers filled this niche by reaching an agreement with The Myers Group of Whidbey Island and its president, Tyler Myers, to open a grocery store in the building. Myers operates several stores affiliated with Independent Grocers Alliance (IGA).

The day before the store opened, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 367 sent pickets to the sidewalk in front of the store. They have carried signs and walked past banners urging people not to shop at the non-union store ever since.

The dispute between the company and the union goes back to 2003, when employees of an IGA store in Ocean Shores owned by Myers tried to join UWCF 367. Kat Overman, communications director for the union, said workers signed cards to unionize. She said Myers dragged the situation out and walked away from discussions with the union. “He did not want to come to the negotiating table.”

The store remains un-unionized.

Tacoma City Grocer Store Director Charlie McKissick has worked with the company for 15 years. He said the union had pickets at the Ocean Shores store for nine months. “They did not get what they wanted and walked away,” he remarked.

Overman said the National Labor Relations Board issued a ruling that Myers had to talk to union representatives. She said he stalled the bargaining process and a contract was never achieved. “He dragged things along, and he ran out the clock,” she commented.

McKissick said workers at Tacoma City Grocer receive wages and benefits that are better than their union counterparts.

He said no one from the union contacted him prior to the opening of this store, although they might have contacted the owner.

ARE PICKETERS HURTING OR HELPING?

The union pickets are generally on the sidewalk in front of the store in the mornings and afternoons Monday through Friday. McKissick said some customers have asked employees why picketers are outside, but that has decreased. “They do not ask about it much anymore,” he said. “They seem surprised that they are still out there.”

McKissick said the picketing is not hurting business. The store gets a steady stream of customers on weekdays, as workers in the many nearby office buildings stop in for items for lunch. He said the store is experiencing slow and steady growth and business is picking up on evenings and weekends.

The picketing does not seem to concern McKissick. “I couldn’t care less,” he said. “If anything, they draw attention to the fact that we are here. Business is growing.”

Overman said she was unable to provide information on how much the picketers are paid. She said they work for the union, most being hired from an outside source. She said the source is not Labor Ready. Some of them are union members who have been laid off from other stores. Other picketers volunteer their time, she added.

According to Overman, the picketing is affecting the store. “Sales have not reached what the owner hoped they would be,” she said. “They are not getting customers like they thought they would.”

Overman said the union has concerns about the public/private partnership between the city and the developers. She said the public was unaware of key details until it was basically a done deal and residents had little input. “This whole thing was done behind closed doors,” she declared. Overman said the union has worked for more than a year to craft a resolution for Tacoma City Council that would open up the process of such arrangements.

Overman said workers at unionized grocery stores make good wages and benefits. “We want people working at IGA to have that,” she said. “As long as we can send that message downtown, we will.”

Andrew Bacon, co-producer of Equal Time Radio on KLAY 1180 AM and outspoken liberal, does not shop at Tacoma City Grocer, but that is more because it is not in his Tacoma neighborhood than the fact that it is non-union. He would like it to be a union shop just on principle, but said that having a grocery store downtown, even a non-union one, is better than not having one at all.

“Sure, I support an effort to unionize it,” he said. “But the fact that there is a grocery store there at all is important too. Grocery stores revitalize a neighborhood to some extent, and there are a lot of things at Tollefson Plaza that wouldn’t otherwise happen.”

Generally speaking, union shops pay better wages and have better benefits than non-union workplaces since the organized workers have some strength to affect their working conditions, he said. But non-union businesses certainly provide living wages for their workers as well. What bothers Bacon is the rise of the corporate mentality of providing low wages and no benefits so that profits are shipped outside of the community.

“I am much more pissed off with Walmart than IGA in that respect,” he said. “Walmart is certainly the worst actor in the room. IGA is just a smaller symptom of that.”

Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who lives downtown, feels Tacoma City Grocery and the renovated structure it is in have helped beautify the urban core. She said downtown residents appreciate having a nearby grocery store.

She noted downtown went decades without a grocery store. When the developers looked for one, they approached Safeway and all the other big chains. “None of them wanted to be there,” she said. “They did not get any takers.”

Regarding the union’s view that the process was not transparent, Strickland said it was well known the developer was looking for a grocery store tenant, with considerable media coverage.

She feels it is unfortunate the union has pickets in front of the business. “As a community, we should want all of our establishments to succeed.”

Strickland added the protest might even be boosting sales. “The pickets may inadvertently draw attention to the store.”

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