One of Hawaii’s largest private employers is scheduled to meet Thursday with union leaders to avert a threatened strike that could cause a massive blow to the company on the eve of the key holiday season.

Foodland Supermarket Ltd.’s collective bargaining agreement with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 480, expired in April 2021. Since then, despite numerous meetings, the two sides haven’t been able to reach an agreement on a new contract. In recent weeks, the union’s president, Pat Loo, has been meeting with employees, gathering votes to authorize a strike.

Loo has approval from workers on Oahu, he said, and has been gathering approval from Big Island union employees this week. The union represents more than 600 meat, seafood, bakery and deli workers in the company’s 31 Foodland, Foodland Farms and Sack N Save stores statewide. The company has some 2,600 workers total.

Jenai Wall
Jenai Wall, the chairman, president and chief executive of Foodland Ltd., said the company is intent on resolving issues with Foodland’s employees. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2022

In an interview, Jenai Wall, Foodland’s chairman, president and chief executive, said the company is intent on finding a solution and avoiding a strike.

“Our goal is to get this done,” Wall said. “We don’t like that our employees are in limbo.”

Neither side would identify the precise points of impasse. However, Loo alluded to “economic” issues, and Wall said management is willing to make concessions related to wages and benefits. She said the wage increases Foodland plans to offer on Thursday will not be easy for the company to fund.

Union Has Filed Federal Complaint

“It’s going to be significantly more than what we planned for in our budget,” she said.

What got management and the union workers to this point is in dispute. Both sides agree that the contract expired in 2021 and that the two sides have met numerous times to discuss a new contract. A point in question involves meetings that Loo said Foodland’s negotiators have canceled. In an interview, Loo said management has canceled 30% of its scheduled negotiation sessions. Wall said that was not true.

What is true, Wall said, is that management’s negotiator canceled a recent session because the negotiator had to take care of the negotiator’s mother, who had fallen ill. Loo said the union is sympathetic to the illness problem, especially given the coronavirus pandemic, which has posed risks for union workers.

“But their employees – our members – deserve better treatment. They risk their lives to go out and feed the community, and they deserve some respect,” Loo added.

In October, the union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that management had violated federal labor law by refusing to bargain or by bargaining in bad faith. Now, with more rounds of negotiations scheduled for Thursday and Nov. 18 and 19, Loo is laying the groundwork for a strike.

UFCW grocery workers strike
A union representing Foodland meat, seafood, bakery and deli workers is gathering votes to authorize a strike as contract negotiations resume on Thursday. Pat Loo/UCFW Local 480/2022

In an interview, Wall expressed surprise at the union’s posture. She was joined for an early morning interview by Stacy Waiau-Omori, Foodland’s vice president of sales and operations, and Sheryl Toda, the company’s vice president of marketing and corporate communications.

Foodland will celebrate its 75th anniversary next year — an example of rare longevity for a family-owned grocery business in an age of industry consolidation.

Wall, her sister Kitty Wo and brother Patrick Sullivan, are the shareholders of the company, which was started by their parents. The company has always prioritized treating employees well, she said. The first and only time the company had a strike was one by meat cutters in 1958, she says.

“We wouldn’t be here without our employees,” Wall says, “the people who are here and the people who came before them.”

Waiau-Omori said the move to strike is bewildering.

“I’m dumbfounded personally because we’ve been at the table,” she said.

If there’s another point both sides agree on it’s that the last two years have been challenging, starting with the pandemic and extending into the current period of high inflation.

Grocers have faced supply chain problems, high costs of goods and packaging and increased energy costs. Foodland has had operating losses the last two years, Wall said. Meanwhile, Foodland is facing increasing competition, with competitors Costco and both planning new distribution facilities on Oahu.

“We have to focus on how we’re going to keep our business alive in the face of all that competition,” she said.

Workers, Loo said, face a similar question: how they’re going to keep their households alive when the cost of living in Hawaii continues to rise, by more than 6% on Oahu in the past year, with essentials like food, gasoline and electricity squeezing people.

“These are not normal times,” Loo said.

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