The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) is the sixth-largest national labor union in the United States, representing employees in the food production, retail, and chemical industries. Although the UFCW was formerly a member of the Service Employees International Union-led Change to Win union federation, it has subsequently rejoined the AFL-CIO.
The union was formed in 1979 as a merger of the Retail Clerks International Union and the Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union. The UFCW has continued to add unions to its stable, with one of the most notable additions being the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) which affiliated with the UFCW in 1993.
In recent years, the union has aggressively employed corporate campaigns to attempt to organize more supermarkets and retail stores. Most notable have been a series of largely unsuccessful efforts to unionize workers at Walmart stores: The free-market Center for Union Facts identified no fewer than seven major attempts to unionize Walmart workers under the UFCW from 2002 through 2015.
The union has had numerous problems in its national office and local unions with financial misdeeds. In 1998, the international union’s then-Secretary-Treasurer, Joseph Talarico, was indicted and later sentenced to 30 months in prison for embezzling funds while leading the UFCW’s Local 1 in upstate New York and Pennsylvania. More recently, the organizing coordinator for the “cannabis division” of the UFCW was fired by the union after being charged with corruption offenses. Outside of the question of improper financial dealings, UFCW officials can be well compensated by union officer standards: Of the ten highest-paid union presidents by salary for 2016, three head UFCW local unions.
The United Food and Commercial Workers was founded in 1979 as a merger between the meatpackers union, the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America, and the Retail Clerks International Union. The predecessor unions had histories going back into the 19th century.
Since the establishment of the UFCW, it has continued to absorb unions into its orbit. The Boot and Shoe Workers Union; the Barbers and Beauticians Association; the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union; the International Chemical Workers Union; and a handful of other unions all aligned with the UFCW.
In 2005, the UFCW followed the Service Employees International Union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and four other unions out of the AFL-CIO labor federation to form the Change to Win federation. The Change to Win unions intended to expand the use of aggressive “corporate campaign” union organizing strategies to reverse the decline in union membership.
By 2013, the Change to Win strategy had largely failed. That year, the UFCW rejoined the AFL-CIO citing the impact of conservative state-level policies that curtailed union privileges and power and the AFL-CIO’s stronger political base.
The UFCW is one of the leading unions adopting the “corporate campaign” model of union organization. Corporate campaigns focus on putting pressure on brands or other public-facing business interests to ensure that the companies, their independent contractors and any franchises are compelled to allow unionization on a region- or industry-wide basis. Former UFCW Secretary-Treasurer Joe Crump characterized the purpose of a corporate campaign by writing, “Organizing is war [… It] means putting enough pressure on employers — costing them enough time, energy, and money — to either eliminate them or get them to surrender to the union.”
In a 1997 case involving the UFCW, the U.S. Court of Appeals for District of Columbia Circuit characterized a “corporate campaign” as “encompass[ing] a wide and indefinite range of legal and potentially illegal tactics used by unions to exert pressure on an employer.” A critical part of a corporate campaign is a so-called “neutrality agreement” on “card check,” a substitute method of determining union authorization than a government-supervised secret-ballot election campaign. Unions prefer card-check as it makes winning organizing campaigns easier than under secret ballot votes. In the words of former UFCW president Joe Hansen, “We [unions] can’t win that way [by secret ballot] anymore.”
In an Arizona campaign targeting the regional grocer Bashas’, the UFCW pushed card-check because it had withdrawn from in anticipation of losing a secret-ballot vote several years previously. When Bashas’ went into Chapter 11 reorganization, the Arizona Republic newspaper criticized the UFCW for “egregiously and falsely” attacking the grocer’s owners as anti-immigrant.
The UFCW endorsed a proposal in the 111th Congress backed by the Obama administration to require employers to recognize unions organized by card check. The bill, titled the “Employee Free Choice Act,” was dropped.
The UFCW has a combative reputation from its corporate campaigns and also a history of strikes. The most notable UFCW strike in relatively recent times hit Southern California grocers in 2003, when UFCW-represented employees struck Ralphs, Albertsons, and Vons for 141 days. The strike has been credited with driving customers in the region from traditional, unionized grocers to competitor businesses.
The UFCW has targeted the nation’s largest brick-and-mortar retailer, Walmart, for organization for decades. Nearly all efforts have failed; UFCW was able to organize a handful of Walmart meat cutters, but Walmart later dropped meat-cutting from its stores in a move the retailer said was unrelated.
In total, the UFCW has activated or participated in at least seven corporate campaigns designed to unionize employees of Walmart since 2002. The most notable was active from 2011 through about 2015; known as Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), the campaign sought to use single-day walkouts and apparent mass demonstrations to create momentum that could later be directed toward union organizing.
OUR Walmart debuted as a purportedly standalone organization in June 2011 alongside Making Change at Walmart, openly a division of UFCW. After two years of demonstrations at the Walmart annual shareholders’ meeting, OUR Walmart launched the first of a series of “strikes”—demonstrations organized by OUR Walmart purporting to be of Walmart employees—timed for the Thanksgiving Friday shopping day “Black Friday.”
It was later revealed that the OUR Walmart “worker center”—a form of progressive labor organizing outside the restrictions of the labor union framework—was a “subsidiary organization” of the UFCW International headquarters. OUR Walmart had attempted to obscure this relationship, telling the Wall Street Journal that it was no longer a subsidiary of UFCW and that the worker center was “an independent organization of Walmart associates.” UFCW reported OUR Walmart as a subsidiary organization on its annual financial report to the U.S. Department of Labor—also known by the name of the filing report, LM-2—from 2011 through 2015.
Throughout the corporate campaign, OUR Walmart and UFCW struggled to gather support in any significant numbers from Walmart employees for labor actions. For its November 2013 repeat of the “Black Friday Strike,” OUR Walmart and UFCW hoped to turn out 500 employees; Walmart reported only 20 workers did not report for shifts. At one demonstration in Washington State, a free-market policy group noted that a near-majority of “strikers” who had arranged arrests were union officials, Democratic Party officers, or otherwise affiliated with labor-left groups.
In 2015, the OUR Walmart corporate campaign disintegrated into internecine conflict. The UFCW fired the head organizers running the campaign and brought in a media consultant from Democratic activist David Brock’s media criticism organization Media Matters to redirect the campaign into a media- rather than demonstration-based effort. The fired organizers later joined with progressive groups to form their own OUR Walmart group.
On September 8, 2018, workers at a Target retail store in Huntington Station, New York, voted 118-39 to reject membership in the UFCW. Had the UFCW campaign been successful, the store would have been the first Target store to unionize.
Left-Wing Political Programs
The UFCW and its local unions are major political players in the liberal movement. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the UFCW was the 15th-largest organizational contributor to federal political candidates from the beginning of the collection of records through early 2017 and directed over 99 percent of its contributions to Democrats and liberals. (Unions are forbidden by law from using dues money for federal candidate contributions; all organizational contributions from unions to federal candidates come from opt-in political funds.)
At the state level, UFCW is also a major political player. The National Institute for Money in State Politics database of state and selected localities’ campaign finance data shows that the UFCW and its subordinate bodies have contributed over $42 million to candidates and committees since 1990. The union’s largest political contributions, exceeding $5.2 million, were directed from UFCW Local 7 to defeat a right-to-work measure in Colorado in 2008. Among UFCW’s most powerful local unions is the union for Pennsylvania state-run liquor store employees, UFCW Local 1776, which has become notorious for opposing any liberalization of the state’s infamously strict alcohol laws. The group received substantial criticism for an ad it ran in 2013 opposing an effort to allow private liquor stores to open in the state.
The UFCW uses dues money to fund numerous liberal organizations. In 2016, the UFCW reported contributions to America’s Agenda Health Care for All, a left-wing healthcare policy group; Ballot Initiative Strategy Center; Roosevelt Institute, a left-wing think tank; the Economic Policy Institute; the Harkin Institute for Public Policy, an Iowa-based progressive think tank; Jobs with Justice, a labor-associated worker center; National Employment Law Project; and the Progressive Agenda Committee associated with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D). The union has also given money to Planned Parenthood, reporting a $10,000 contribution in 2014.
In the International Union
The United Food and Commercial Workers has been rocked by corruption scandals, some reaching into the highest ranks of the International Union. In the late 1990s, the union’s number-two man, Secretary-Treasurer Joseph C. Talarico, went to prison for embezzling nearly $1 million from UFCW Local 1, which he had previously headed. Members of Talarico’s family held numerous other union positions, and some were also charged and sentenced for corruption offenses.
The corrupt ethics embodied by Talaricos have not been entirely rooted out of the UFCW. Recently, Daniel Rush, the head of the union’s “marijuana organizing division,” was charged by federal prosecutors for taking kickbacks from marijuana businesses for his assistance in securing various operating permits from California’s marijuana dispensary regulators. Rush had been on a six-figure salary from the International Union before he was fired after charges were filed. Rush would plead guilty to three felony counts of money laundering in 2017.
In Local Labor Unions
Corruption and other bad behavior by officers continue to dog UFCW local unions. In San Diego, California, Mickey Kasparian, who heads UFCW Local 135, has been sued by two former employees for sexual harassment and sex discrimination. Kasparian was sacked as head of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, a local AFL-CIO group, by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka after the allegations became public.
Proven financial corruption has also been uncovered in recent years. In 2011, federal prosecutors charged three members of the Fazio family, who controlled UFCW Local 348-S, with numerous counts related to labor racketeering that involved the extortion of employers whose workers were UFCW 348-S members. At trial, evidence was introduced suggesting the Fazios had enabled their extortion schemes by claiming to be involved with organized crime. The Fazios were all convicted, with two sentenced to over ten years’ imprisonment each and the third sentenced to five years’ imprisonment.