This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.
The grocery workers’ union is picking the wrong fight with its almost yearlong action against the only full-service supermarket in Tacoma’s downtown core.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 367 says its picketers – many of whom are paid – are educating the public. But they rarely hand out fliers anymore or interact with people entering the nonunion Tacoma City Grocer. So it appears the real reason for the picketing is to discourage shoppers by forcing them to cross a picket line.
Tacoma is known to be supportive of organized labor, so it’s likely that the pickets have succeeded in driving away some business. What if that results in the store closing its doors? How many friends will the union make if it drives out the only grocer willing to take a risk on downtown Tacoma? The owner says his store isn’t profitable yet; how much longer will he hold on?
A grocery within walking distance of downtown residents, workers and students had long been a top civic priority. City officials saw it as a necessity to help spur greater downtown residential density.
More than a dozen unionized stores were approached to go into the relatively small space in the Pacific Plaza building – including Safeway, Kroger and Metropolitan Market – but none was interested. Then The Myers Group – a small, independent grocer based on Whidbey Island – stepped up, and it was met with picketers from its September 2011 opening.
Why picket this store and not other nonunion stores in the area such as Costco, Trader Joe’s and Walmart? Is it because the Myers Group – which operates only four other groceries in the state – is seen as vulnerable, that this is a fight the union considers winnable, whereas taking action against a powerful giant chain would not be?
The union contends that it’s in the public interest for grocery workers to receive decent salaries and benefits. That is true. But store owner Tyler Myers says his employees are at least as well-compensated as those at union stores and that seems corroborated by the store’s low worker turnover rate.
The union also contends that city officials should have done more to ensure that the grocery was unionized because the building it’s in is partly city-owned. But the city didn’t impose that restriction on the private investors in the building as part of its agreement with them, and it certainly cannot be done retroactively.
The union doesn’t seem willing to back down, so the best strategy for downtown residents and workers is to make a point of shopping at the Tacoma City Grocer. They should realize that if the store is forced to close, it could be a very, very long time before another one comes in.