A vote on a union at an Aurora HelloFresh site is seen as a test of labor’s ability to flex its muscles at a time when workers are hard to find and union members who’ve been on the front lines in the pandemic are now on the picket line, seeking better conditions and pay.
The mail-in vote at the HelloFresh facility in Aurora, where about 350 employees are eligible to cast ballots, started Oct. 28 and will run through Nov. 22. About 900 HelloFresh employees in Richmond, Calif., will start voting Nov. 18.
The number of worksites, both in Colorado and across the county, wanting to organize seems to be growing by the week.
- Last week in Boulder, employees at Spruce Confections announced they are organizing to start what labor officials said would be the first food service workers’ union in Boulder County.
- Employees at four Amazon warehouses on Staten Island, a borough of New York City, have enough interest to hold an election to form a union, the New York Time reported last week. That follows a failed union vote in April at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala.
- Employees at a John Deere & Co. distribution center in Denver joined more than 10,000 of their co-workers across the country in the first major strike against the company in 35 years that began Oct. 14. A tentative agreement was announced Saturday, but union members have to consider it.
- Hundreds of janitors at Denver International Airport walked off the job in a one-day strike Oct. 1 when contract talks between the Service Employees International Union Local 105 and the employer, Flagship Aviation Services, stalled. The SEIU and the company continue to negotiate.
- A strike by Nabisco employees, including workers at an Aurora plant, ended in September with a new four-year contract with parent company Mondelez International.
“I know it’s a moment for labor, but it’s actually a moment for workers,” said Robert Lindgren, Colorado AFL-CIO political and organizing director. “I’m seeing people reexamining why they work at a given place and trying to find the best possible opportunity for them and their families.”
HelloFresh employees in Aurora said they formed a committee to explore starting a union after talking to managers a number of times about pay, working conditions and safety concerns.
“They took notes but did nothing about it, so this is really the only way we can make a change here,” 26-year-old Sarah Williams , who earns $15 an hour, said in a recent interview.
An accident in June that injured four employees, one seriously, also drove the push to unionize. Unite Here, a union that represents people in food service and other industries, is working with HelloFresh employees in Colorado and California.
In the lead-up to the votes, HelloFresh, the country’s largest home-delivered, meal-kit provider, has hired Kulture Consulting to provide contractors to hold meetings the company said are intended to inform employees about unions. Each speaker gets $3,500 per day plus expenses, according to a filing with the U.S. Department of Labor.
“It’s definitely kind of fun just sitting through those and getting lectured about (union) dues from a person who’s making almost more than what I make in an entire month,” said Noah Canady, 24, a HelloFresh employee and on the committee that organized the vote in Aurora.
“Much like unions that hire professional organizers, we are currently working with experts to support HelloFresh in sharing the facts with employees at our distribution centers,” HelloFresh spokeswoman Robyn Schweitzer said in an email. “We respect each employee’s right to choose or refuse to be represented by a union.”
However, union officials have a different take. Lindgren of the Colorado AFL-CIO said companies like Kulture Consulting get hired because they’re effective in influencing people.
“It’s the same reason advertising works. You keep a consistent message and you keep people afraid,” Lindgren said.
But Lindgren said at this point, people don’t seem afraid to pursue forming a union.
The U.S. House passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act in March, but the Senate hasn’t voted on it.
Aleksandar Tomic, an economist at Boston College, said although the labor shortages give workers some leverage, he’s not sure whether that’s good or bad for unions. Employers are raising pay and offering such incentives as signing bonuses and reimbursement for college tuition to attract workers.
HelloFresh offers paid sick leave and parental leave, health care insurance with no required premium and a 40l(k) with a company match, according to the company.
If employers make improvements to attract workers during the labor shortage, that could minimize the pressure to unionize, Tomic said, “But on the other hand employers are getting more demanding, especially around the COVID issues, so that could offset it.”
Tomic doesn’t see the failed vote at the Amazon warehouse in Alabama as a harbinger for similar attempts. There are big differences in culture, politics and labor relations in different regions of the country, he said.
“How is HelloFresh treating its workers? How is the relationship? I think these are very, very individual situations,” Tomic said.
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