Janesville67.5°

Workers say union no longer effective

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JAMES P. LEUTE
May 16, 2008
— “Just let us vote.”

That’s the sentiment of hundreds of Woodman’s Food Market employees who say that United Food & Commercial Workers Union Local 1473 has worn out its welcome as the bargaining unit for the grocer’s 950 workers at stores in Janesville, Beloit and Madison.


Earlier this year, more than one-third of the stores’ employees signed a petition to decertify Local 1473.


That petition, plus charges and countercharges of unfair labor practices, is in the hands of the National Labor Relations Board, which will decide whether the petition was valid and a decertification election should be scheduled.


Two weeks ago, more than 500 Woodman’s employees signed a second petition that called for Woodman’s to immediately pull its recognition of Local 1473 as the employees’ bargaining unit.


With the various twists and turns in the case, the NLRB isn’t likely to rule for months.


The union’s self-preservation is at the root of its efforts to drag out the NLRB’s investigation, say employees who want Local 1473 out. Union members, they said, pay between $37 and $40 in monthly dues, which translates into an annual take of more than $400,000 for Local 1473.


Penny Lundgren, who has worked at Woodman’s in Janesville for more than 29 years, said employees don’t get much in exchange for their union dues. In fact, she said, the union is fighting to keep longtime dues-paying members from signing petitions or voting on decertification.


“Originally, the union was very strong and it served its purpose, but times have changed and Woodman’s has changed,” Lundgren said Thursday.


“We’re not anti-union people. We have a lot of respect for GM workers and their union and the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers). It’s just that our union is not representing us in the manner we should be served.”


Vicky McIntyre, a 19-year employee, said the union no longer controls employees’ health and pension plans. Woodman’s CEO Phil Woodman took over those roles years ago, and the result has been better health-care benefits and a successful employee stock ownership trust that has spawned 60 millionaires among active and retired workers, she said.


“Our insurance is 100 percent paid with no deductibles, and we can retire without making any contributions or matches,” said Dan Wright, a Woodman’s employee for 31 years and currently the grocery manager in Janesville.


The workers say the only time they ever see a union representative is when a contract is about to expire. While the union takes credit for negotiating wages that are higher than industry averages, the workers note pay rates are basically the same at all Woodman’s stores, whether they are union shops or not.


Union supporters have said the wage similarities are just a management ploy to show up the union. Once the union is gone, wages and benefits at all stores will be cut, they say.


Wright doesn’t buy that. He doubts wages and benefits will ever fall, and if they do, it will be the result of a severe economic downturn and not a simmering strategy of Phil Woodman.


“Phil pays me good money, offers me flexibility with my schedule, pays my insurance and I only have to work 30 hours a week to get it,” said Jessica Primus, a single mother who has worked at Woodman’s for more than five years.


The employees said the effort to decertify Local 1473 is all theirs. Neither Woodman nor any other management representative has had anything to do with it, they said.


Like their pro-union colleagues, the wedge that’s been driven into the family business bothers the employees who want to get rid of Local 1473.


Wright likens the work atmosphere at Woodman’s to walking on eggshells. Primus has heard the whispers of union supporters when she walks into a break room.


“And the customers ask us about it every day,” Lundgren said.


They also can’t stand what they believe is unfair criticism of Woodman, who they say is a hands-on employer who has done much for them and the communities in which he operates.


“It’s a tough place to work,” Wright said. “There are rules, and there are days when it’s not fun to go to work.”


But Woodman is a reasonable man who offers benefits that other grocers do not, Lundgren said.


“If you call Philip, Philip calls you back,” she said. “He responds to problems and suggestions. It may not always be something he agrees with, but at least he’ll listen.”



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