When you work in the retail industry, you see companies prosper and expand, always looking to branch out into a new neighborhood, and bring their product and service into different communities. However, when you’ve been around as many years as I have you also, unfortunately, see chains and independent stores struggle and close. Many of us have seen some whole companies disappear, seemingly overnight. Sure, in most cases the proverbial writing was on the wall for years leading up to a closure, but that very next day after a store, or especially a whole company, closes for good it’s really hard to believe they are no longer in existence. In my time I have seen companies disappear such as Bohack, Penguin Key Food, Supersol, my alma mater Dairy Barn, and of course, who can forget Pathmark? And these were just chains that employed Local 1500 members.
It is always a difficult time when a store closes, and the members are displaced. Along with shock and heartache, there is also the financial worry for the members of what comes next? When am I getting my next paycheck? How do I pay my bills? How will I take care of myself and/or my family? All very reasonable questions under the circumstances. We do our best to protect employees’ hard-earned entitlements, so they can transition into their next job (or retirement) as smoothly as possible. Although your Union will fight as hard as possible to protect you, there is nothing we can do that can overcome mismanagement. Back when Pathmark filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012, we as a Union had some very difficult decisions to make. We were faced with the probability of the entire chain closing, virtually overnight, if we didn’t renegotiate our contract mid-cycle. It was an enormous effort to find ways to save the company money and help keep them in business. Of course, our goal was to keep as many members of Local 1500 employed as possible. So, we, along with twelve other UFCW Local unions that represented A&P stores, made the tough decision to meet and bargain modifications to our Collective Bargaining Agreement. It was one of the most difficult times to represent our membership—having people come together to vote on a temporary decrease in salary, vacation time, and Sunday OT to name a few. But overall, the sentiment of the Pathmark membership was that of trying to save their company, even if it meant less for them individually. The renegotiated contract passed but unfortunately, again, in 2015 A&P went bankrupt, was liquidated and the Pathmark chain was lost, and members found themselves asking all the questions I mentioned earlier.
My purpose is not to depress you, but rather illustrate to you what the advantage of being represented by a Union can do for you, even in the worst of times…. especially in the worst of times. I mentioned what happened in 2012, but I firmly believe that if not for Local 1500’s involvement, along with all of our sister Locals in the Northeast, the A&P company would have been completely gone in 2012, leaving tens of thousands of people without jobs almost 3 years earlier. Similarly, in 2015 when A&P decided to shop their stores at the auction, I know that it was our relationship with companies such as Stop & Shop, King Kullen, Dan’s Key Food, Glass Gardens ShopRite, and Holiday Farms—that saved, literally, thousands of Union jobs. Was it a perfect situation? Definitely not. Did thousands of people still lose their jobs? Unfortunately, yes. But the losses would have been more than twice that if these companies didn’t acquire these stores and most importantly agree to hire the members that they did. Even then it was still a battle to convince these Union employers to maintain most, if not all, of the A&P salaries and benefits for the acquired group of members. It was not a ‘given’ and it certainly was not an easy task to accomplish. Nevertheless, in the end we were able to help protect the benefits and livelihoods of thousands of our members and their families.
I have heard many times that the cost of Union contracts will put a company out of business. Really? Well how do you explain closures such as Toys R Us, Sports Authority, Circuit City, Borders Books, Linens N Things, The Wiz, Radio Shack? The list goes on and on. These and many other companies became defunct because of mismanagement, over expansion and corporate greed. There were no Union contracts in these stores. The employees there had none of the securities they would have had if they were represented by a Union contract. Was there anyone ensuring the WARN act was being complied with? Was there anyone coordinating meetings with the Department of Labor Rapid Response Team to make sure people were getting everything they needed? Did anyone help these workers properly apply for Unemployment benefits? I’m not so sure about that. There were no job fairs put together for those employees. There was no communication with them after the doors closed. There was no one reaching out to those employees after the fact with potential job opportunities at other employers. Were there any pensions or retirement plans that employees of a qualifying age could depend on, to comfortably move on in their lives? Most people received nothing at the time of closing, and no offer of future help was made to them. We have always said that being a part of this Union means that we are, and always will be, family. And that’s why, even well beyond the existence of the now defunct company, we have used our industry relationships to help steer people in the direction of new job opportunities long after the closings. That’s what I would want someone to do for me and my family.
So yes, both Union and non-Union companies alike unfortunately shutter their doors sometimes. The difference is how those employees are treated when and if that time unfortunately comes. Our Union has been very vocal about how unfair non-Union companies, such as Best Market, Target, Wal Mart, or North Shore Farms treat their employees on a regular basis. Will these companies treat their workers with the same dignity and respect as the companies I mentioned in my opening paragraph? You know, the ones that were represented by Local 1500. Or will they shut the doors and never look back on the employees, even after all their years of hard work and dedication? That remains to be seen, but when you have an advocate, like UFCW Local 1500, that truly looks out for your well-being, both in good times and bad, it can certainly make all the difference in your life.