Imagine taking office as president of the nation’s largest UFCW local at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Suddenly, healthcare and grocery store workers are declared essential frontline workers, but essential workers should have enough money to buy food, have a roof over their heads, and lead lives that are essential. UFCW Local 21 president, Faye Guenther, talks about how coronavirus upended the playing field and contract negotiations but ushered in beautiful acts of solidarity from their extended union family beyond the UFCW.
Some highlights from UFCW Local 21 and the Coronavirus Pandemic include:
03:07 – The First COVID Case
08:37 – Talking to 100,000 Members
11:20 – COVID Safety Protocols and Essential Workers
14:26 – Growing up in Rural Oregon
17:32 – 100 People Leading
This is The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds with Traci Dority-Shanklin. We believe in demystifying retirement solutions, upholding retiree dignity, and contributing to economic stability through union organizing, pension reform, and legislative activism. In short, we’re devoted to busting myths about the labor movement. If you’re interested in the enduring power of labor, well, you’ve landed in the right place, experts and activists will share their insights, expertise, and stories. Time is short, so let’s get started.
Traci Shanklin 0:35
You have been listening to The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds and I have been speaking with Faye Guenther. She is the president of the UFCW Local 21, the largest UFCW local in the country with over 46,000 members, and she’s also its first female president. In the previous podcast, Faye and I discussed the importance of diversity and inclusion, and the UFCW Local 21’s important goal of identifying, recruiting, and training the next generation of labor leaders. Well, not only is Faye Local 21’s first female president, but she took office right before the global coronavirus pandemic began. But, before we get into all that, would you please share with our listeners how you got involved with the labor movement?
Faye Guenther 1:23
I actually grew up in really rural Oregon and didn’t have that much exposure to unions. Somehow, the whole community rallied around me and helped me get to college at Oregon State University, where I really got involved in a lot of trying to reform Oregon State University. And out of that activism, the AFL-CIO has a recruitment project where they go on to college campuses and try to recruit people to become labor organizers. I was recruited by the AFL-CIO, and right out of college, I went down to Stanford Hospital to organize workers and then organize workers in California and Washington and Oregon. And that’s kind of how I got involved. But, I grew up in a mostly very rural tiny logging rancher town with very few unions.
Traci Shanklin 2:10
Wow. That’s interesting because a lot of people know labor before they get involved in the movement, so how awesome that there’s recruitment out there for young people so that the message of labor work is really relevant today.
Faye Guenther 2:27
Yeah, I know a lot of people have like a mom or a dad who was in the labor movement, or a sister or a brother or something like that. And we all grew up very poor, and there weren’t a lot of unions there, I just didn’t get that kind of exposure and did my own work in a non-union, little grocery store and a non-union video store and all other kinds of work, but never, never got the benefits of having a union and really having a voice on the job. And so, when I learned that you could be a union organizer and get paid to help workers stand up for themselves and fight for better wages and fight for healthcare and fight for pension and retirement, I could actually not really believe it, that somebody would pay me to do that.
Traci Shanklin 3:07
You’ve had quite a ride since becoming the president of the local, you started in this role only months before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. And during that time, you have supported and advocated for your members as they’ve battled on the front lines in the grocery stores. You’ve navigated and embraced your members through the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter movement. And you’ve successfully led the adoption of a hybrid retirement strategy for your members. I mean, that’s a ton of accomplishments in a short period of time. Can you set the stage for the listeners of the job you stepped into during this unprecedented time?
Faye Guenther 3:45
It’s sort of a blur, I would have to say a little bit. I came into office. We were actually negotiating the grocery contract that ended up negotiating this variable annuity-defined benefit plan. I’ve been part of the grocery bargain since 2010. And we’ve been struggling with our pension for a long time, in fact, had been in the red zone and put into a rehab plan in 2010, which I know we’ll talk about later. So, we’re in this intensive grocery negotiations to try to redefine the pension and negotiate a solution that stabilized Sound Retirement Trust, and you know, maximized benefits and security for the pension. And there was other thorny issues we were dealing with, too, like workplace safety and workforce development, like what’s the future of the grocery store industry going to look like? And how are we going to negotiate about making sure all of the workers are prepared for whatever that future looks like? We also have 16,000 healthcare workers. And as the grocery campaign was, we were dealing with this really complicated pension, 5000 Providence workers were preparing to go on strike and for the first time, we haven’t had a strike since 1999 at UFCW 21 which was a one-day strike at a Providence up in Everett.
Faye Guenther 4:52
So, anytime, members at UFCW 21 start heading towards a strike, I sit at that table as well. And we were coordinating with WSNA and SEIU and us, and really trying to pull that coalition together. And then as soon as we settled the Providence contract, you know, we had our first COVID case. And the first COVID case was actually in Providence. Our members were the first members to handle COVID patients at the Providence facility, and then Evergreen and other — other things. So, we started immediately having, you know, emergency weekly meetings to try to figure out how to deal with workplace safety issues; how to deal with the fact we didn’t have enough PPE. There weren’t enough masks. There were stories of workers wearing garbage bags to work. And all this was horrible, sad; people were dying, stress, all those sorts of things, but we didn’t have enough masks in the healthcare facilities. And my trades brother, Mark Riker, actually talked to all of his painters and all of his workers and said, “Look, the healthcare workers don’t have enough masks, and they have COVID patients inside the hospital.” And he drove his truck all around the state of Washington and helped get masks for us to get into our healthcare workers.
Faye Guenther 6:01
And at that time, also, that grocery workers, you know, at the very beginning of the pandemic, people may not remember the, you know, it was like, “Go wash your hands really carefully.” “Oh, you don’t need to wear a mask,” or “Oh, you do need to wear a mask.” There was a lot of confusion. And so, here’s these grocery workers who should have been wearing masks, but we’re also helping get masks to healthcare workers who had COVID patients in that they were caring for. There were beautiful acts of solidarity that happened. During that time, also really sad and scary things are happening. But, you know, I’ll never forget the painters and the tradespeople sacrificing their own masks to our healthcare workers. It was a true act of solidarity that I’ll always remember. We’re still dealing with COVID. We’re still dealing with this new surge. Our members are on, you know, they’re essential workers on the frontline making sure everybody’s getting fed and taken care of. And so, the intensity has really never stopped.
Traci Shanklin 6:54
So, I want to remind the listeners that the UFCW members are predominantly grocery store workers, but they also work in healthcare. It must have been quite a paradigm shock to realize your members were now risking their lives every day. With the heightened stress level for your members, can you share other measures that you took to protect and reassure them? It sounds like you had a lot of support from other unions. And as you mentioned in these beautiful acts of solidarity, but what did you have to do internally to calm the fears and communicate with them?
Faye Guenther 7:29
Immediately, we ended up with a COVID exposure at our own UFCW office. And the protocol at that point was to like shut things down and bring cleaning crews in and stuff. So, we immediately had to go offline. And we started setting up weekly phone call town halls where we can talk to all of our members. We started doing tons of hustles, which is like texting to people. And we started doing lots of demands to bargain. We were bargaining — we have 166 contracts. We were basically in bargaining, six, seven days a week trying to bargain COVID safety measures including like the — in grocery stores, people see the plastic barriers between the cashiers and the customers and the cleaning supplies and trying to get PPE into the work sites. And so, we were doing tons of advocacy at the state and federal level to try to get stockpiles released of masks and to grocery store workers and to healthcare workers. And we have food processing workers and Rite Aid and Barton workers, you know, pharmacy. All these pharmacy workers. We couldn’t get enough PPE. So, we started moving a PPE drive where we’re trying to get donations from all around to get masks and all sorts of things.
Faye Guenther 8:37
So, I think that we just tried to open up lines of communication because things were changing so quickly at the beginning. And if folks haven’t used the phone call townhall technology to talk to people, it was really effective. We’re just calling every single person; they could pick up the phone; they could ask any question they wanted. And we did it; week after week after week. In fact, we did them so frequently our members were actually, like, “Hey, you know, I appreciate you’re trying to talk to us all the time, but maybe dial it back a little,” so we went to every other week. And now we’re doing them about once a month. And just checking in, making sure people can ask questions. Also, we obviously have reps on, you know, people out in the field, and we have stewards, I think one of the things I’m really proud of is that we identify and recruit and train as many shop stewards as possible and worksite leaders so that there’s lots of eyes and ears out in the websites, and that there’s an infrastructure, so the shop steward can hear from the workers that are in the workplace, and then make sure they’re letting their rep know and just building that communications infrastructure. So, there’s lots of two-way communication. We got to the end of 2020. We kind of look back and we had talked to over 100,000 people by that just from COVID starting to win the year ended. Now some of that was talking to the same person, you know, more than once, but that’s still a lot of a lot of conversations.
Traci Shanklin 9:54
That’s a lot of conversations. You mentioned it’s a two-way membership town hall. I don’t know the technologies, so can you just explain that a little bit to our listeners?
Faye Guenther 10:04
We call out to all of our membership; they can pick up the phone, and if they didn’t want to, they didn’t have to pick up the phone. And then they can press zero anytime and ask a question. And we have screeners. So, the screeners are trying to get as many questions and so if we see, like, lots of people have a question about this topic, we can try to get somebody on and they go live right on the phone, right on the phone with us and ask the question, then we respond. And we usually have a panel like I would respond to most of the questions, but I bring in experts, healthcare experts on COVID, experts on how to deal with filing a complaint if your workplace wasn’t enforcing the mask mandate or wasn’t enforcing any of the safety protocols.
Faye Guenther 10:43
We actually had the governor of Washington join one of our calls; we had the Department of Health join one of our calls; we had — we’d have experts come in, nurses coming on and talking about how to deal with stress and anxiety. Each call, we tried to bring in a specialist to talk a little bit about how to handle the situation and what was happening. It was really effective. And I would recommend people use it. We have to use all the tools like some people like a newsletter; some people like to get text; some people like to talk on the phone. Some people like to do a Zoom, you know, some people like to do a phone call town hall. So, we tried to do all of those things to try to communicate with people in the way that people like to be communicated with.
Traci Shanklin 11:20
I love the proactive nature of it all. And I think you’re right, it’s finding — it’s finding people’s sweet spot of where they like to communicate. The fact that you’re meeting them where they’re at is so important. And something especially in a time like this, where everybody was feeling confused to have that community to lean on is I’m sure resonated deeply for the members of Local 21. How has COVID created changes in the collective bargaining with employers? Has it made any lasting changes there? Are things like PPE and hazard pay still something that has to be discussed now? I mean, again, this is a new paradigm. Who would have thought that you’d find yourself on the frontlines of, you know, something so dangerous?
Faye Guenther 12:11
Yes. I mean, we have MOUs with many employers about COVID safety protocols; COVID — alerting the union when there’s a COVID exposure. We have MOUs that cover a range of topics, including time off; if somebody gets exposed to COVID. Time off to get vaccinated; incentive pay for getting vaccinated. The new round is these vaccine mandates. As they get mandated, we’re demanding to bargain over the impact and what does it mean for people’s jobs and livelihoods. And so, it’s sort of continuous and ongoing bargaining. And we’re demanding to bargain over hazard pay in for all the workers. Some places we’re winning; some places we’re not; some places workers are moving hazard pay ordinances after City Council’s and winning them. We’re just trying to figure out all avenues to try to make sure workers get what they should get when they’re feeding the entire nation and taking care of the entire nation. And they’re called essential workers.
Faye Guenther 13:05
So, essential workers should have enough money to, you know, rent a home, or even buy a home and pay for their gas for their car; pay to get their car fixed; have food to eat; not be homeless, like what does essential mean. And I believe essential workers deserve to have, you know, affordable healthcare and a pension they can rely on and a wage that they can earn that allows them to live with, you know, some dignity and respect. That’s really been the thing that this pandemic has talked a lot about essential workers. And if you look at a lot of essential workers: grocery store workers, healthcare workers, bus drivers, farmworkers who get up and pick our food, what kind of lives do they get to lead, and if they’re not leading lives that are essential, if they’re not able to have enough money to have a home that’s safe and close to where they work and have food to eat. Then that does not seem like they’re being treated like essential to our society. Those are the kinds of conversations we’re having every day over and over and over again with employers and with elected leaders. And anybody who will listen to us, basically.
Traci Shanklin 13:08
Really excellent points. And it kind of leads into my next conversation, which is, as a female leader, do you have a story or an experience in your background or your labor career that really empowered or motivated you to do this vital work?
Faye Guenther 14:26
I think it’s an accumulation of a lot of stories, but I do remember when I was younger, my mom would come home and you know, she worked any job she could get and she would come home from, you know, working in the potato fields or working in a nursing home and she was so tired. And so just worn out and people get mistreated and dehumanized at work. And I just remember thinking, you know, this isn’t, this isn’t right. And I think a lot of folks struggle with navigating the bureaucracy, the bureaucracies of whether it’s whatever type of bureaucracy and I just remember thinking, how is it that you can work this hard and still not have, you still have to stand like in a food line? Or you just don’t have the things that you need to live a reasonable life. And I think just kind of always feeling like, if workers work hard, they should get, be able to live a decent life. And that sort of stayed with me, I think.
Faye Guenther 15:21
And I’ve just worked with so many workers organizing them and, and talking with folks and going into their homes and seeing that people work really, really hard, yet, they’re not able to earn what is needed to make sure that they can live a secure life. And that’s, that’s not fair. You know, in our society, there’s just this kind of concentration of wealth, and it’s not being shared in a way that that is fair. And the folks who work really, really hard every day are just not making what they should be making to, to get by. So, I think that watching my mom work, and working myself and working with workers my whole life, I think that’s probably what’s influenced me.
Faye Guenther 16:03
I grew up in like a logging town, a ranching town, and the logging industry kind of the bottom fell out when I was, you know, young, and you know, all these loggers who their whole bodies, I mean, they’re missing fingers; their shoulders are injured; their backs are broken. And then these big, huge logging companies like pulled out of our towns, and the pensions went bankrupt, and people lost their healthcare. I mean, it was just like, people’s very bodies were utilized to cut down trees and fall trees and pull them around. And then right when the workers needed the most help there. There was no jobs left, and there was no — and even the pensions they’d worked hard to get, we’re gone. So, I think those experiences, you know, made me think something’s not quite right. The only solution is for workers to come together and try to demand a better society and try to demand better workplaces and better policies for workers at the state and federal level that protect people who work hard.
Traci Shanklin 17:02
Clearly, I can hear the deep passion you have for this and the personal nature of your passion to helping working men and women be treated with dignity everywhere from their workplace to retirement. And I love hearing that. I want to ask you a little bit about your leading such a young and diverse slate of officers and so many firsts. So, what does that been like for you and the team?
Faye Guenther 17:32
It’s so funny you should ask that. Because I think maybe this is the like, people forget to celebrate their wins or their victories. Because, you know, once we get one thing done, we kind of move on to the next thing. And so, we started this practice of trying to put down in writing, you know, what are the things we’ve accomplished, to try to remember, what’s, what’s gone well, and what — and what hasn’t. I guess the only thing I would say is that when you identify and recruit 1000s of new leaders, there’s ways to have — get more really good work done and have more victories. These victories are the victories of a whole team of people. The members on the Providence bargaining team, they fought and fought and fought and, and stood together and unified. And we pulled Providence bargaining teams together for the first time from every part of the state to a central location and started bargaining at a central table. And that was a huge, just huge thing to do. And it allowed us to build solidarity between ourselves and between the other unions, and also show the employer that we were very united.
Faye Guenther 18:33
So, that was a victory that took 100 people leading and all those bargaining tables. So, I guess I’m really, really proud of the members who keep fighting. And we have staff, a lot of our staff came out of the membership and — or came from other organizations that were used to really building militant campaigns and fighting until we win, and sometimes we lose, but then we get up, dust ourselves off, and find the next place that we can make a difference. So, one of the things that was happening we started doing during COVID is like, what are the few things we can do really, really well that’ll make the most difference, and really narrowing it down and saying, “Okay, we’re gonna do these five things super well, and we’re gonna do them until they’re all the way done. And then we’re going to pick the next five things and do those things.” And we’ve had a lot of success with that, like, here’s all the work that needs to get done. But here’s the five things that make the most difference. And that’s what we’re gonna focus on and get done.
Faye Guenther 19:25
And I think so much of this work that we end up doing if you let it you get sucked into defensive work always be — being on the defense. And the other thing we’ve tried to practice is, what are the things that we could do that actually permanently change things? We may have to play defense over here, but where are the two places we could play offense and make something better? And I guess the variable annuity defined benefit pension plan — we’ve been struggling with our pension since 2010. We had to take pre-PPE cuts, PPA cuts, I mean, in like 2003. So, our pension has been under attack and there was — we could just keep playing defense. Keep letting it get to a place where it could potentially go bankrupt. Or we could go, “You know what, we have to do something different,” and dig in really hard and work really hard and create a different solution for the future. And so, I think that attitude of being creative, thinking outside the box, and trying to think of something that can change, structurally change things for the better permanently, so you’re not always playing defense.
Traci Shanklin 20:23
One of the things that just struck me that you said was you said, 100 people leading, and I think it has to speak to your leadership. Do you have any final thoughts about yourself, UFCW Local 21, or the labor movement that you’d like to leave our listeners with?
Faye Guenther 20:40
I want labor to be a place for unorganized workers and for organized workers and for families and for all folks to come together and learn about collective power and learn about how to make sure that working people get what’s fair. We just have to keep organizing, and we have to keep identifying leaders and training people to fight for a better future.
Traci Shanklin 21:01
Thank you, Faye, this has been amazing. I really appreciate you having this conversation and joining me on the podcast today.
Faye Guenther 21:09
Absolutely. Traci, thank you for talking with me, and I hope we can talk again soon.
Traci Shanklin 21:13
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Traci Shanklin 21:51
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Transcribed by https://otter.ai