As you read this column, our union is engaged in critical contract negotiations with several major supermarket employers, including Albertsons, Ralphs, Stater Bros. and Vons. Throughout these talks, Local 1167 is working in cooperation with several other UFCW unions in Southern California to negotiate a new contract that will determine many of our members’ wages, working conditions, job protections, health and pension benefits for the next few years.The degree of our success depends in large measure on the solidarity of our members, but it’s not the only factor. We recognize that the employers exist to make a profit, and this profitability should enable them to share some of their wealth with the work force who help make those profits possible.
Initially, things look good in the retail food industry. Our employers have shown sustained profitability and have struggled to hire and retain quality workers. One could easily think that this should strengthen our hand as we press for improvements in upcoming negotiations. On the other hand, there are some issues that could affect our ability to maintain current benefit levels and work force protections over the long term.
One of these issues is the continuing rise in health care costs. Another is the aging population and the pressure this puts on sustaining pension plans across the country.
For this column, I want to focus on a third long-term factor: automation.
The entire retail food industry appears to be obsessed with new labor-saving technologies such as self checkouts, automated stocking systems and home-delivery programs like Instacart and ClickList.
In their quest to maximize efficiency and compete in the modern marketplace, employers are investing heavily in driverless vehicles, from robot cars to drones. (Kroger specifically with a warehouse and driverless delivery service in Phoenix, Ariz.) More than anyone else, Amazon is using its acquisition of non-union Whole Foods Markets to disrupt the supermarket industry, aiming to apply its considerable technological resources to carve out a dominant share of the business.
Already, Amazon has opened markets that allow customers, by using an app, to select their goods and take them home without having to go through a checkout line. The store is able to track their choices and deduct the charges from their checking accounts.
The latest news from Amazon is its testing of mini-robot carts about the size of an Igloo cooler. Traversing neighborhoods on six wheels, these devices are already delivering packets directly to the doors of customers without being touched by an employee of UPS, FedEx or the U.S. Postal Service.
Over time, these technologies have the potential of reducing the number of hires at a typical store. This in turn could lead to reductions and could even lead to possible layoffs if we do not meet this issue head on.
Should the total number of hours worked get reduced across the bargaining unit, so too would the total contributions the employers would be making to the trust funds that maintain our health plans and pension funds.This scenario paints a grim picture of the future for careers in the supermarket industry, but it does not have to be that way.
At the recent Food & Drug Conference, a delegation from Local 1167 learned about alternative trends that could increase employment in retail stores (see page 10). For example, a mega-Starbucks store in China uses apps to engage customers in an immersive experience that enables them to interact with employees in a variety of new ways. A similar store is in the works for Downtown Los Angeles.
We also learned about certain Chinese and European markets that are integrating technologies where customers utilize an app to select their food and identify how they want it prepared. Then costumers have a choice to eat their customized meals on-site, take meals to go, or have a runner collect the remaining items on a shopping list.In our quest for better wages, benefits and working conditions for our members, your union is committed to working with the employers where possible to realize the brighter potentials of technology.
Technological changes may be inevitable, but these changes don’t have to be negative. Our task is to help harness technology for its proper purpose, which is the improvement of human lives. With all the changes in retail, now more then ever it is imperative that ALL of our members stay engaged in the negotiation process. Please keep an eye out for this publication and you can look on Local 1167’s website and Facebook page for updates. Should you have questions or concerns please contact your union representative.
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