One the first day that the popular Wegmans grocery chain opened its doors in Manhattan, members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union were there to remind the regional franchise that New York City is a union town.
Around a dozen representatives for the grocery workers union were standing outside the AStor Place supermarket talking to customers and passing out flyers to spread the word to the community that the new store was opening up as a non-union employer.
Wegmans has marketed itself as a wholesome family-owned grocery chain that “puts people first.” Its New York City debut in the Brooklyn Navy Yard several years ago was met with ecstatic responses from neighbors who savored its large selection of artisanal pre-made items. But behind the scenes, the grocery chain has a reputation of union opposition.
“The word on the street is that there has been some practices of trying to dissuade their employees from having conversations with us,” said Fred Walker, a UFCW business representative.
Wegmans did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
The union representatives said their goal was twofold: they wanted to protect their members in unionized stores that might be hurt by the new competition and they wanted to connect with the store’s 600 new employees to tell them the benefits of having a union.
“I have a number of members in Manhattan that I could see losing out on certain things in our contracts from the opening of a non-union shop like this,” said Walker. “They’re gonna lose a lot of business, and then that falls downhill. They’re gonna reduce the payroll, which results in our members losing hours.”
The flyers listed a number of unionized stores in the surrounding area, including a unionized Gristedes just three blocks away on University Place.
“We’re trying to protect our members, and we’re also trying to spread the information that these folks should unionize,” Walker said.
In other stores, Wegmans employees have noted their managers’ resistance to unions. On multiple Reddit threads, users who identify themselves as Wegmans employees have described trainings that Wegmans management has held to dissuade union efforts among its workforce. A video of a training that one user uploaded to Youtube dramatizes a conversation among Wegmans employees about a union drive, in which one employee delivers a long, one-sided speech arguing against the value of unions.
“Think about it, a union is really nothing more than a mouthpiece that employees think can talk to management for them. You don’t speak for yourself as an individual when you’re in a union,” the character says.
Walker said that in his conversations with passers-by, many people seemed surprised about the fact that Wegmans is non-union and were interested in hearing more, although getting through to employees through the crowd of supervisors and security guards who were stationed in the shop for the opening proved difficult for the union organizers.
“They deserve a right to have conversations with unions. They have a right to have some representation. They have a right to things like sick pay, personal days, vacation and wage increases,” he said.