Grocers at odds with workers over Black Lives Matter buttons

The National Labor Relations Board believes Kroger violated the law and is negotiating a settlement.

“Black Lives Matter” buttons were distributed by UFCW 21 to Fred Meyer and QFC employees in August 2020.

“Black Lives Matter” buttons were distributed by UFCW 21 to Fred Meyer and QFC employees in August 2020.

EVERETT — Workers at Fred Meyer and QFC should be able to wear Black Lives Matter buttons on the job, the National Labor Relations Board says. Retail giant Kroger, which discouraged some workers from doing so, is reviewing a settlement agreement.

Tom Geiger, a spokesperson for the union that represents the Kroger employees, said members were asked to remove buttons that said “Black Lives Matter,” after the union handed them out in August 2020. The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21 alleged Kroger failed to bargain over a change in workplace conditions and prohibited workers from taking action together — both violations of federal labor law.

The NLRB found merit in both claims, said Region 19 Director Ronald Hooks. Hooks, who heads the NLRB’s Northwest Regional Office in Seattle, said the Division of Advice found that “both of those acts by the employer constituted violations” of federal labor law.

Memos from the Division of Advice, which offers guidance in difficult cases, are not typically available to the public while the case is open. Hooks said Region 19 received the memo in mid-September and is negotiating a settlement with Kroger.

“We are reviewing the proposed settlement agreement,” wrote a Kroger spokesperson Monday. “Our company is unequivocal in standing with our Black associates, deeply listening and taking action to advance more diverse, inclusive and equitable communities.”

If the NLRB believes there is merit to allegations against an employer, attempting to negotiate a settlement is the first step in resolving a case. If the parties can’t reach an agreement, the NLRB issues a complaint against the employer. That leads to litigation.

Hooks said if the parties can’t reach a settlement, he expects the NLRB would issue a complaint sometime in October.

For Fred Meyer and QFC workers, the update was a welcome one. Workers wore the Black Lives Matter message to support the movement, and because many had experienced or witnessed racism in the workplace, said Geiger, the UFCW 21 spokesperson.

“The message of Black Lives Matter that the workers were wearing was both an expression of a problem they were experiencing or witnessing in the workplace that they wanted addressed and also a comment about what was and continues to be happening in our society in general around racism, and racism toward Black people in the community, specifically,” Geiger said.

In Snohomish County, employees at Fred Meyer and QFC first wore face masks and other items that said Black Lives Matter after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer. The officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, ultimately killing him, while other officers watched.

Floyd’s death sparked international protests against police brutality and racial inequality. The 2020 Black Lives Matter movement became one of the largest social movements in U.S. history.

As the summer progressed, however, some of the workers were told they weren’t allowed to wear the slogan, Geiger said. In some cases, Kroger management suggested workers wear a bracelet that said “Standing Together.”

“It showed how much Kroger completely missed the point,” Geiger said.

In August 2020, UFCW 21 gave its members the Black Lives Matter buttons. The union filed a grievance with the NLRB, after workers were asked to remove them.

Katie Hayes: katie.hayes@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @misskatiehayes.

Katie Hayes is a Report for America corps member and writes about issues that affect the working class for The Daily Herald.

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