UFCW 2023 Convention: My Experience Fighting for a More Democratic Union

by | Aug 22, 2023 | Labor, Working Mass

by Iris Scott

The 9th UFCW International Convention was both infuriating and inspiring – that was my experience as a rank-and-file member serving as a delegate and pushing for reform within UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers International Union). The primary camps in opposition at the convention were the ironically named Members First uncontested slate fighting to maintain the status quo vs. the Essential Workers for Democracy (EW4D). Reformers got some significant wins with better strike benefits, a form of UFCW Board representation, and the creation of a new healthcare division. But some of our biggest priorities got voted down: one member one vote, first day strike pay, seats on the International board for rank and file workers, more investment in organizing, and others. The mental gymnastics by staff and local presidents needed to oppose these common sense pro-worker amendments was impressive. But since convention, EW4D has been hearing from workers all across the US and Canada who are inspired by what we are doing and want to get involved. 

This UFCW convention, held every 5 years, is when our international leadership is selected, and amendments to our constitution are debated and voted upon. This past April 2023, reformers from within UFCW came together as delegates and alternates in Las Vegas to shake up the status quo that has been accepted for far too long within our union. It was invaluable to connect with other reformers in person and to stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity as we begin our fight for a more democratic union. 

EW4D is fighting for reforms such as one member one vote, first day strike pay, capping staff salaries at $250k, committing more resources and effort towards organizing, and many other pro-democracy and pro-worker changes. Five local Presidents receive annual compensation over $400,000. Our union dues should be going to efforts to organize more workers and fight against corporations and greedy executives, not to pay union staffers an executive’s salary. EW4D examined the full list of delegates and alternates to the convention. We estimate that 60% or more of those in attendance at convention were UFCW staff (UFCW International has not released the number of paid staff vs rank-and-file workers at convention, when asked). We can both recognize the importance of union staff and also admit that not providing our rank-and-file members a truly democratic way to elect our leadership is wrong. UFCW is more than 1 million workers strong across the United States and Canada, yet paid staff are essentially making all of the decisions on the future of our union. These are just a few examples of why we so desperately need to revitalize UFCW.

My journey to the 9th United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) International Convention started in the fall of 2022. Each member of my local, UFCW 1459 in western Massachusetts and Vermont, received a letter explaining that there would be a UFCW International Convention in April 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. If we had interest nominating ourselves or another member as a delegate or alternate, we could do so on a certain date, time, and location. Knowing that this letter went out to more than 4,000 members, I wasn’t quite sure how contested this nomination process and election would be. My fellow stewards and I talked and decided to put our names in the hat; we wanted to have representation from our store, even if it was highly unlikely. After the nomination day came and went, we found out that nobody outside of our group had nominated or self-nominated (in a Local of approximately 4,000 members) which was very shocking to me, but we’ve all seen this before in various elections. Sometimes the only thing you need to do is to show up. I was lucky enough to be appointed a convention delegate, and my coworker and fellow steward Ian Kelly was appointed an alternate. The rest of our delegation would be filled by a few Local 1459 staff and the rest by board members from our Local (all rank-and-file workers themselves). 

Let me take a step back and introduce myself. 

My name is Iris Scott and I use they/she pronouns. I am a rank and file member of UFCW Local 1459 which covers western Massachusetts and Vermont. I am a grocery worker and a shop steward at a food co-op in western Mass, a delegate and board member for the Western Massachusetts Area Labor Federation (WMALF), proud member of EW4D, and on the Executive Committee of River Valley DSA (River Valley covers approximately the area known by the colonial name Pioneer Valley). Boil that all down and I am simply a working class person newly embedded in the labor movement. 

When I joined DSA in the fall of 2020, I truly didn’t know much about organized labor. Just 7 months after joining, I knew that the way I could best engage with the movement was being embedded in the working class. I desperately needed a career shift in 2021 and my criteria when figuring out my next step were: 

1. work close to home  

2. be in a union 

I got a job at a food co-op in my town that was already unionized and has a bargaining unit of approximately 160. I was able to become a steward after 6 months at my workplace, joined the bargaining committee one month later to fight for our contract, and became a delegate to WMALF not long after that. Each step along this expedited journey, I have been trying to learn as much as I can from my colleagues and show solidarity with other workers and working class people. When the opportunity came to represent my workplace and Local 1459 at the UFCW International Convention, I knew I had to seize it. Rank and file workers deserve to have our voices heard, and I am humbled to have had that chance at this convention which only comes around every 5 years. 

At the beginning of November 2022, I saw the Labor Notes article UFCW Reformers Look to 2023. That’s where I first learned of Essential Workers for Democracy (referred to as Essential Workers for a Democratic UFCW in the article – they officially became Essential Workers for Democracy, EW4D for short, a few weeks later). I agreed with the reforms they were rallying around, and I reached out to them on Twitter. I got involved with them over the months leading up to the convention and did some freelancing for them alongside a small group of people from across the country, looking into publicly available tax documents from UFCW Locals. We were compiling data on the staff positions and salaries of the delegates that would be at convention, and I cannot even tell you how many egregious salaries we uncovered. For example, the president of Local 1996, based in Georgia, makes just shy of $600,000. That made my skin crawl. The highest salary we uncovered was the president of Local 464A in New Jersey who made $700,941 in 2022. Imagine – leading a local, professing your solidarity with your members and being paid an executive’s salary to represent and fight for a group of workers that you are entirely removed from. How can a Local President making $700k relate to people struggling to feed their families and avoid eviction? We live in different worlds, and that is absolutely unacceptable. That would become one of our core reforms that EW4D brought to convention: capping all staff salaries at $250,000. Spoiler alert: overpaid UFCW staff didn’t love that idea! Surprising, right?

The 9th UFCW Convention kicked off on Monday, April 24th, 2023 at the Mirage in Las Vegas. The very first thing on the schedule were workshops we had signed up for months prior. I was in a workshop called Members on the Move and I kept getting distracted by huge cheers and chants that sounded like they were happening right across the hall from us. I ducked out of the workshop early to get a free COVID-19 test, and I was stopped in my tracks out in the main hallway. This giant events center hallway was lined on both sides with hundreds of UFCW staff, delegates, and alternates – this is where the cheering and chanting was coming from. Signs, buttons, and chants proclaiming “MEMBERS FIRST” (the name of Mark Perrone’s uncontested slate) were everywhere. The irony is thick with that name and slogan – EW4D is dreaming of and fighting for a world where the UFCW does finally put members first, while the old boys club is riding the status quo and their “Members First” charade right into another 5 years of leadership.

This pre-planned gathering of Members First supporters was there to create a celebratory atmosphere as people were walking down the hallway towards the main convention hall, cheering and chanting loudly whenever people walked by. It was later that day I found out that the Local 3000 contingent – all eager supporters of the reform movement and co-authors of the proposed amendments and resolutions – were taunted and ridiculed as they walked the main hallway, sporting their (really excellent) bright blue t-shirts that read “ORGANIZING & BARGAINING & THE RIGHT TO STRIKE & A VOICE IN OUR UNION” and leading a chant of their own: “First Day, Strike Pay!”

That first day was filled with rah-rah type welcome speeches and overly produced feel-good videos of rank and file workers smiling. The heat turned up on day 2, which started off with an early press conference orchestrated by EW4D. 

Rank and file workers from EW4D spoke about the reforms needed, with 40+ of our fellow reformers standing behind us, broadcasting virtually via Facebook, Zoom, and later on Youtube. We spoke about the main pillars of our movement:

One member one vote

Investing in organizing 

Strike to win 

Member seats on the UFCW Board

Bringing more rank and file voices to the convention floor 

After the press conference, we all readied ourselves with the bright red bandanas from EW4D which became the visual declaration tying our movement together the rest of the week. You were in good company if there was a red bandana around you. We filtered down to the main floor and marched down the casino hallways together chanting “ONE MEMBER, ONE VOTE” and “FIRST DAY, STRIKE PAY” all the way to the convention hall. It was a great moment of solidarity, as we announced our presence loud and proud and made it clear that we were coming in with our own demands and we weren’t there to slap backs and rubber stamp all of the recommendations given to us by the various committees.

The 2nd and 3rd days of the convention were when the actual business was accomplished: the “election” of the uncontested Members First slate for the 5 top positions and the 50 International Vice Presidents, debate and votes on proposed amendments, and debate and votes on proposed resolutions. Some highlights include:

Mark Perrone FINALLY speaking out against the proposed Kroger-Albertsons merger in his speech after re-election. It only took him about 6 months and a re-election to declare that we will fight the merger, which would be absolutely devastating for our workers and the entire grocery industry. 

The supposedly neutral Constitution Committee which vets all of the submitted amendments ahead of time coming forward with their recommendations on the amendments, conveniently being perfectly aligned with the Members First slate on all of the issues, and largely recommending against all of the pro-worker and pro-democracy amendments. 

Debate being cut short by calling the question early. The One Member One Vote debate was prematurely cut short, with a smirk and a laugh by the Secretary-Treasurer of a NY local who makes more than $250k/year, after only 3 people had spoken – 2 for, 1 against. For context, many of the other amendments being debated had upwards of 10-15 speakers per side that spoke. The question being called so early was a clear attempt to silence worker voices. The fact that it happened while debating One Member One Vote was a slap in the face to workers everywhere. “Members first,” am I right?

Iris Scott (@sunburn_life) from @ufcw1459 wanted to speak in favor of #1M1V on the floor, but @UFCW didn’t let them. So much for “members first” pic.twitter.com/vD49FtrvjP

— Essential Workers for Democracy (@EW4Democracy) April 28, 2023

Iris explaining the One Member One Vote debate being cut short during the second day of convention

The people speaking against our pro-democracy and pro-worker amendments were almost exclusively Local Presidents and/or International VP’s. In contrast, every single person who spoke in support of these amendments were rank-and-file workers. To be clear, there are Local Presidents who support our amendments, but those Presidents understand the need for worker voices at convention and will not stand in the way of that. 

Over and over again, staffers and people in power came up to the mic to oppose our amendments and sneer at us and our demands to actually put members first. Their overall sentiment was: “How DARE you insult us and question the International. How DARE you not trust the International blindly. How DARE you say that rank and file workers deserve a voice in our union…we stocked shelves 30 years ago, we ARE the workers! How DARE you try to cap our salaries – our members ‘sign off’ on our salaries, which means you are questioning the intelligence of the workers.” My eyes rolled so far back on that last one that I didn’t know if I’d ever see again. The mental gymnastics needed to oppose these common sense pro-worker amendments was both impressive and infuriating. 

A Local President who was part of the Members First slate screaming into the microphone and cursing at us, the members, like we were children needing to be put in our place. By the way, he makes over $350k a year, plus a $20k stipend for being an International Vice President. 

Last month at UFCW’s convention there was a lot of enthusiasm for revitalization among rank-and-file workers. There were also a lot of excuses mostly from paid staff about why they don’t support it. Here’s the top 5 excuses we hard. https://t.co/QP5Rd2ZCgK

— Essential Workers for Democracy (@EW4Democracy) May 17, 2023

Explaining the top excuses we heard at convention for opposing our reforms.

By the end of the convention, a number of our resolutions got voted down: one member one vote, first day strike pay, seats on the International board for rank and file workers, changing 2/3rds to simple majority for a strike vote, making distributions of delegates more equitable, allowing for full per capita roll call voting at convention, and requiring International to spend at least 20% of its budget on organizing. These pro-worker and pro-democracy amendments and resolutions were shot down by the status quo majority in the convention hall. But we had some real wins, as well: the creation of a new healthcare division, extension of strike benefits to workers newly organizing into UFCW, strike pay on the 8th day (meaning strike pay will begin after a full week on strike – it was previously two full weeks, and we will continue to fight for strike pay to start on the first day of a strike like workers deserve), Constituency Groups having a form of Board representation.

There were also resolutions passed which EW4D supported that will put in writing the UFCW’s commitment to support broader social issues:

student loan debt relief 

trans, non-binary, and gender nonconforming peoples’ rights and inclusive language

protecting the right to vote for those impacted by the criminal legal system

reproductive rights as workers’ rights

the urgent fight for racial justice 

protecting workers experiencing domestic violence

building power in the cannabis industry

We did not expect to get everything we were pushing for at the convention. We know that reform movements like this one take years, and this was just our coming out party – our chance to put the International and the folks in power within the UFCW on notice. They may be able to silence us on the convention floor, but we will never be truly silenced. The workers are the union and this is just the beginning. The red bandanas are here to stay. We walked out of convention with a renewed sense of exactly what we are fighting for and an electricity running through us that will continue to propel us through this reform movement. I am incredibly grateful to have met and shared this experience with so many unique and passionate rank-and-file workers, many of whom shared deeply impactful personal stories on the convention floor. 

What is EW4D up to post-convention? There have been zoom calls to debrief with those of us who were at convention and rank-and-file workers who did not have that opportunity. Our efforts now turn to strategizing ways to bring more and more workers into our movement, and planning an assembly for essential workers next spring. There is much work to be done in order to revitalize the UFCW, but we are in it for the long haul. EW4D has been hearing from workers all across the US and Canada who have been inspired by what we are doing and want to get involved. It’s time to welcome them in and get organizing. 

Iris Scott (they/she) is a union steward and active member of River Valley DSA. They are also a delegate and board member for the Western Massachusetts Area Labor Federation and working to reform UFCW with Essential Workers for Democracy.

Iris urges you to get involved with Essential Workers for Democracy by visiting ew4d.org – they want to connect with workers everywhere, whether or not you are a union member.