My comrade Rhonda Laur, a full time Kroger meat department employee and a UFCW Local 876 Steward, wrote this piece about a five and a half year battle she and her coworkers waged for justice over “bloody meatcoats” at Kroger.
I was a member of local 876 for twelve years, much of it working like Rhonda in the meat department of a grocery store. Laid off in a round of store closings (Michigan’s recession started way before the rest of the country’s) I have a ton of tales of similar violations of health and safety at every location I worked. There is nothing, comrades, like waking up at six in the morning for years to grind meat in a cold, wet, blood and sinew splashed room. Worse, as they made me do when I had no seniority, was cleaning out the bone barrels in the alley behind work. One can acclimate oneself to almost anything, but not the bone barrel.
I congratulate Rhonda on this dearly won victory after such an excruciatingly long struggle. As Rhonda writes you only win if you fight. Thanks for fighting this through to the end- an inspiration to all grocery workers. Salute!
Michigan Workers Win “Bloody Meatcoat” Battle
On January 17, 2009, United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 876 announced a nearly $2.2 million settlement from the Kroger Co. for meat and seafood dept. employees working in southeast Michigan Kroger stores. The award ends a more than 5 year battle against a Kroger policy which forced its employees to launder soiled and bloody meatcoats in their own homes, on their own time and at their own expense.
The Bloody Battle Begins
The fight began in the fall of 2003, when Kroger cancelled its professional linen service contracts and announced its home laundering policy to meat and seafood workers. Meatcoats soiled with blood and raw juices from cows, pork, fish, chicken, lamb and veal would no longer be left at the store in laundry bags at the end of each shift. Instead, employees had to take them in their cars, to their homes where infants, children, elderly adults and people with compromised immune systems might be living, and launder them in whatever facilities were available.
For the first 14 months of the policy, fulltime workers were given 3 meatcoats, part-time workers were given 1.
Part of a National Trend
The decision by the Kroger Co. to require home laundering for Michigan employees followed similar announcements in Kroger stores across the country. According to the Kroger Co., Michigan and Ohio were the last of their marketing areas to have professional linen services replaced by home laundering. To this date, UFCW Local 876 is the only local in the nation to have arbitrated the issue.
Workers Won’t Back Down
In January, 2004, Kroger sent a Human Resources representative to meet with Local 876 officials and a group of the most militant and outspoken meat and seafood workers. Workers explained their numerous health and safety concerns, emphasizing the minimal expense of professional laundering, offering to split the cost among employees for maintaining the linen service, asking Kroger to put washers and dryers in the stores-anything to avoid taking the soiled and bloody meatcoats out of the store and into their cars and homes to be laundered. Their pleas fell on deaf ears.
Fortunately, their anger and frustration was not lost on the Local 876 officials in the room. Having cut meat before moving into union positions, these officials knew what it was like to be drenched in blood and animal juices. They understood the imposition on workers and their families and the danger inherent in home laundering. The meeting ended with UFCW leaders pledging to fight Kroger’s bloody meatcoat policy as a class action grievance in arbitration.
MIOSHA & Ag. Dept. Back Kroger
Meat and seafood workers also turned to the Michigan Occupational Safety & Health Administration (MIOSHA) and the Dept. of Agriculture for support against the policy. The health and safety inspectors initially backed the employees and encouraged them to file complaints based on the 1999 Michigan Food Code which prohibited food establishments from conducting any part of their business in private homes. Unfortunately, the leadership of these two groups decided that corporate business interests trump employee health and safety. After discussing the complaints with Kroger officials, they agreed to give grocery stores an exclusion from that provision of the Food Code.
Workers Win, Kroger Appeals
In March, 2006, after 2 ½ years of the bloody meatcoat policy, an independent arbitrator ruled that the Kroger Co. could require home laundering under its contract with UFCW Local 876 but that it must pay meat and seafood employees for their time and cleaning expenses.
Hoping to overturn the arbitrator’s ruling and get a court sanction for shifting their laundering costs onto workers, the Kroger Co. appealed the arbitration first in Federal District Court in Michigan and then to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Kroger’s hometown, Cincinnati, Ohio. They lost both appeals.
Kroger Reverses the Policy
For the 1,200 full and part-time employees forced to home launder bloody meatcoats for nearly 5 years while the arbitration was being argued, decided and appealed twice, the arbitrator’s ruling brought them more than financial compensation. In March, 2008, 3 months before the Circuit Court rejected Kroger’s second appeal, the company decided to limit its probable losses–it abandoned the home laundering policy and reestablished professional laundering services!
Workers Win Back Pay
On February 8, 2009, checks and giftcards from the nearly $2.2 million bloody meatcoat settlement were distributed to Kroger meat and seafood employees by UFCW Local 876 officials. The entire amount was distributed among the membership with fulltime employees who home laundered the entire 5 year period receiving checks for $1700 in back pay and $271 Kroger gift cards for laundry soap.
Payments were prorated for employees with 4 years on down to employees who home laundered for 6 months. Part time employees received half of the full time amount based on their seniority. Retirees, former employees and even to the families of deceased former employees were also given their shares of the settlement.
An Exceptional Victory
In this era when victories for workers against their corporate employers are too few, the militant determination of Michigan meat and seafood workers to fight and the willingness of the UFCW Local 876 leadership to back them up led to victory and showed that unions, if they fight, can still win.
Rhonda Laur is a full time Kroger meat dept. employee and a UFCW Local 876 Steward.