Learn About United Food and Commercial Workers Unions

Unionized Supermarket and Grocery Store Chains in the U.S. Retail Industry

Grocery store manager in an aisle

Erik Isakson / Blend Images / Getty Images

The largest retail chains in the United States have historically fought against the unionization efforts of its employees. Despite the active efforts of the biggest U.S. retailers to thwart union organizations in their workplaces, however, there are tens of thousands of retail employees who are members of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Union.

The Role of the UFCW

The UFCW fights for better conditions for workers including higher wages, benefits, and better schedules. Most of the retail workplaces with unionized employees in the U.S. are supermarkets and retail food operations. But there are also unionized employees in industries such as packing and processing, chemicals, cannabis, and distilleries. Efforts to organize employees behind unionization in other types of retail stores have not had widespread success, but news on retail employee efforts to organize unions in their retail workplaces is proliferating.

Unionization is a popular topic in the U.S. retail industry where employees feel overworked and underpaid. Retail employers fear that the costs associated with a unionized workforce would take away their ability to compete. The one retailing niche where retail employees are unionized, however, is in supermarket and grocery store chains. 

Kroger, Ralphs, Albertsons, Safeway, Vons, SuperValu, CVS, Rite Aid, Macy’s, Bloomingdale's, and H&M are just a few of the many retail chains small and large that survive and thrive despite the presence of union representation in their employee ranks.

The History of the UFCW

The UFCW has developed thanks to the men and women who have dedicated their lives to the Labor Movement in North America. U.S workers now have a strong voice that represents today's workers and the workers of tomorrow.

Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel "The Jungle" exposed the terrible working conditions and unsanitary practices inside America’s meatpacking plants. That year, the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act were passed to protect consumers from unsafe meat. Packinghouse workers, however, were not protected, so the workers on the kill and processing floors of plants around the country began uniting in unions to raise their pay and working conditions.

The Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America (AMC) was the first national organization dedicated to improving the working standards of the meat industry through unionization. United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) was formed in 1943 and successfully increased wages and ensured better working conditions. The UPWA was also deeply involved in Chicago’s community-based struggle for racial equality.

In the 1980s, technology and efficient equipment changed the meatpacking industry by increasing worker speed and productivity while cutting labor costs. Small, local, and regional companies found it difficult to compete and were bought out by giants such as Tyson and Smithfield. These and other mega-corporations controlled more than 80 percent of the market. Faster processing with heavy equipment, however, meant more hazardous working conditions for workers.

The UFCW Today

The UFCW today is the largest private-sector union in the United States representing 1.3 million professionals.

Workers have lost power at the bargaining table because giant meatpacking and food companies are determined than ever to keep labor costs as low as possible and production as high as possible. Companies hire cheap labor, maintain high line speeds, and demand cuts in wages and benefits from unionized facilities. Some companies hire undocumented immigrants who work for low wages and are unaware of their rights and U.S. labor laws.

However, the UFCW continues to represent the workers and families of America. Items that the union has addressed include the 2018 Farm Bill that proposed cuts to SNAP, a program that provides food to millions in need put food and creates sustainable jobs in food processing plants, distribution centers, and grocery stores.

The Union has also addressed Amazon's plans to introduce cashier-less technology at Whole Foods, which would threaten the jobs of thousands of U.S. workers, and Amazon's plans to remove eligibility for bonuses and stock awards for workers once the company raises its minimum wage to $15 per hour.

The Union is also fighting for changes in the North American Free Trade Agreement that would require Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) whereby meat sold at retail would have a label informing consumers of the country where the product was sourced.