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Monday, March 30, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Grocery workers’ union targeting Yoke’s; CEO describes campaign as a ‘low blow’

A Yoke’s Fresh Market grocery store in 2003. (FILE / SR)
A Yoke’s Fresh Market grocery store in 2003. (FILE / SR)

The union representing thousands of grocery store workers in Eastern Washington has launched an aggressive campaign urging shoppers to avoid Yoke’s Fresh Market.

The chief executive of Yoke’s calls the ads “a low blow” that misconstrues the company’s efforts to save local jobs.

In mailers, TV and radio ads, United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1439 alleges the Spokane Valley-based company jilted workers previously represented by the union at The Trading Company Stores after that chain was acquired by Yoke’s this summer.

“This is just an issue of fundamental fairness,” said Eric Renner, secretary and treasurer for the union, in an interview this week.

But John Bole, chief executive at Yoke’s, said his company saved local jobs by stepping in and buying four Trading Company locations that would have otherwise gone out of business.

“We hired many of the Trading Company employees who expressed an interest in working at Yoke’s,” Bole said. “I’m proud of what we did.”

Local 1439 member Don Damon was recruited to appear in one of the radio and TV ads the union created. Damon said he wasn’t aware his full name would be used in the ad, but stood by its message.

“I don’t know what happened,” Damon said. “I was never offered a job at Yoke’s at all.”

Damon was on sick leave when the deal was struck, after being diagnosed with lymphoma in May. He’d worked at the Spokane Valley Trading Company as a meat cutter for about four years, he said, after stints with Rosauers (also represented by the union) and 18 years in the commissary at Fairchild Air Force Base.

The union had finished negotiations with the Trading Company for a new collective bargaining agreement just weeks before a form letter was sent July 7, informing the 71 workers at Trading Company’s East Sprague Avenue location that their jobs would be eliminated but that they could apply at Yoke’s. The Trading Company and Yoke’s agreed as a condition of the sale that existing employees would not be assured a job at the new store, and if a job was secured with Yoke’s, it would be an “at will” position.

As a result of losing his job, Damon lost both his salary and medical benefits. He said he’s living off a credit card, meager Social Security benefits, payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs and a $150-a-week stipend from the union.

Bole pointed out that it was the Trading Company’s parent firm, Bonner Foods Inc., that sent out the form letters indicating the jobs would be lost, not Yoke’s. Bole said Yoke’s worked quickly to ensure medical coverage for employees who made the transition and gave them vacation pay, he said.

“I would encourage customers to come in and talk with our people. At Yoke’s, we’re really proud of our history,” Bole said.

Damon didn’t dispute that Yoke’s saved local jobs. But he said the sale offered his colleagues a difficult choice of working at Yoke’s under a new benefit system or finding a union job elsewhere. The sale made his already stressful medical situation more dire.

“I had heard rumors, we had been hearing for over a year that the store was going under,” Damon said. “Maybe he did save a lot of people’s jobs. He didn’t save everybody’s.”

Neither Yoke’s nor the union said how many employees at the Trading Company found employment with Yoke’s at the same location.

The union says the issue began when Yoke’s acquired the old Haggen location in Liberty Lake. The location was a Safeway before it became a Haggen store, and when the West Coast-based grocer went belly-up in September 2015, Yoke’s placed a winning bid to acquire the store. Other Haggen locations reverted back to their Safeway and Albertson’s ownership, where workers are represented by unions.

Yoke’s Fresh Markets are employee-owned, and Renner, the union official, said when he attempted to sit down with the chain’s management to ensure pension, health care and retirement benefits were maintained in the store transition, he was rebuffed.

“They’re selling the stores,” Renner said. “The people that built those stores weren’t considered.”

But Bole said because the store is employee-owned, decisions about wages and benefits always include worker input.

“Almost all our board members are elected by the employees,” Bole said.

Renner received the same response from Yoke’s following the sale of the Trading Company stores this summer, referring the union to the chain’s lawyers. The union represented the meat department workers at Trading Company stores, not all employees.

Yoke’s actions have energized Local 1439’s leadership, Renner said.

“We are strongly committed to this campaign,” Renner said. “Not to be cliche, but if we’re not looking out for the little guy, then who is?”

Bole called the ads a “low blow” and said they mischaracterized the grocery chain’s standing in the community, operating locally since 1946.

“The ad doesn’t resemble in the slightest the company we are,” Bole said.

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