There’s no question it’s tough working in the grocery industry these days. Can being part of a union really make things better? To get some insight into this question, we sat down with Cameron Mancini, a Cheese Clerk at the PCC Community Markets store in the Columbia City neighborhood of Seattle. PCC is a community-owned co-op and the employees are part of UFCW Local 21, the largest private sector union in Washington state.
Mancini has been working at PCC for about a year but he previously spent three years at a non-union Whole Foods store in Rhode Island. We started out talking about the punitive attendance points systems used by many non-union grocery stores like Whole Foods and New Seasons Market.
NSS: At PCC, have you or your co-workers ever faced negative consequences for calling in sick?
MANCINI: Absolutley not. We never have to worry about calling in sick. They would rather us call in sick than come in and work with food and put people in danger. More than that – they cannot discipline us for using sick time. We don’t have a point system.
Specifically, we are safe to use sick time when we want and how we want and we don’t need to jump through hoops to prove we were “really” sick.
If they feel someone is excessive using their sick time at PCC they don’t just fire them they have a conversation with them to see what’s going on. They remind people, we really don’t want people abusing the system, but it’s not a disciplinary problem generally.
NSS: But does that mean people abuse the system?
MANCINI: I’m not going to abuse my sick time because I want paid time there when I really need it. I got really sick with a respiratory thing when I had just started and it sucked because I hadn’t accumulated paid sick time yet. But I could call in sick and there was no stigma to it.
NSS: Is the experience working at unionized PCC different from when you worked at non-union Whole Foods?
MANCINI: At Whole Foods, people were arbitrarily disciplined with points piled on, or not, depending on whether they like you. You could get points for clocking in late, counting your register wrong, having a bad customer interaction, calling in sick. Calling in sick a couple of days in a row could get you fired.
NSS: At PCC, you have a wage scale in your contract, right? How did raises work at Whole Foods?
MANCINI: Luckily, when you have a union wage scale you have a path to know that you’re going to get rewarded for doing the work. There’s not a question. In one year at PCC I’ve gone from $15.50 to $17 an hour. I went from helper clerk to clerk and got a raise from that. And then I got another additional raise because of hitting the amount of hours specified in the contract. I didn’t have to ask for it. I just got it. I didn’t have to beg my managers. At PCC, with the union contract, we get a raise like every six months or so on the union wage scale, which is so good. $17 an hour is the most I ever made in my life, straight up. I’m stoked because the next step on the scale is the journey rate – $20.70 an hour. And I should be there in six months.
At Whole Foods you had to fill out a job dialogue and make the case for why you were worth giving a raise to. I didn’t do a job dialogue for a whole year because there was a person in my department who didn’t like me and they were friends with my boss and they s____-talked me. After that person got fired, my boss recognized I did a lot of work. I worked at Whole Foods for three years and I was only able to go from $11 an hour to $11.89 an hour.
NSS: What about health care?
MANCINI: I couldn’t get health care at Whole Foods because it was prohibitively expensive. I actually qualified for Medicaid. At PCC I only pay $60 a month for my spouse and I.
NSS: Do you think the union actually helps to hold management accountable?
MANCINI: With a union contract we have “just cause.” We can challenge disciplinary actions. If you feel that the actions taken by management to discipline you are unjust, that they skipped steps on progressive discipline, that the punishment isn’t fit to what you did, it’s overly harsh, that other people do it and get away with it but you’re getting punished for it… you can go to a steward or a union rep and tell them what happened and start a process where the union can have that overturned. The company has to respect the process because they are in a legally binding agreement to do that, but more importantly, because the union is the workers and we have the power to back up that contract because we make the work happen. We make their money.
NSS: How do you feel about non-union stores like New Seasons expanding in Seattle?
MANCINI: I think that the union grocery stores in Seattle, they are upholding the standard throughout the industry. And because we have so many of them we have a really high standard. The problem is when New Seasons opens up store after store as they are, they’re lowering the standard. I want New Seasons workers to have the same stuff I have at PCC and I want Safeway and Fred Meyer workers to have it too. Everyone.