EVERETT — To Shawntia Cunningham, the enforcement of a dress code seemed selective, but the message abundantly clear: Don’t wear a “Black Lives Matter” button on company time.
Until recently, Cunningham, 27, said management at the south Everett Fred Meyer store where she’s worked for over a year had supported employees wearing “Black Lives Matter” attire.
She recalls no storewide memo announcing a ban, just individual conversations from higher-ups to put them away while on duty inside the stores.
“One minute we were able to wear ‘Black Lives Matter’ pins and the next it went poof,” she said.
She’s not alone.
The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21, the union representing over 13,000 workers at Fred Meyer and QFC stores in the Puget Sound, first heard complaints in late June of employees in Bellingham not being allowed to wear “Black Lives Matter” accessories on the job.
In response, the union distributed buttons with the phrase “Black Lives Matter” in August as a showing of support and solidarity. Within weeks those accessories were also deemed against policy, according to Marc Auerbach, campaign director for UFCW 21.
A spokesperson for Kroger, owner of both QFC and Fred Meyer, said the company backs the sentiment behind the “Black Lives Matter” movement and is offering a different approach through wristbands that read “Standing Together.”
The presentation on the wrist is less visible and the alternative wording seems timid compared to the rallying cry for social justice that “Black Lives Matter” captures for employees such as Cunningham, who is Black.
The issue is now headed to the National Labor Relations Board after the union filed a grievance on Tuesday alleging the company is violating labor law and a labor agreement.
The claim alleges that beginning in mid-August, store management selectively enforced its dress code against employees wearing the “Black Lives Matter” buttons distributed by UFCW 21.
Cunningham said she’s been called a racial slur and racially profiled by customers while at work. She said it’s frustrating that management is aware of these situations, but opposes the more visible signs of support for Black people.
“How are we going to make our customers feel safe if I am an employee and I don’t feel safe working there?” Cunningham said.
The “Black Lives Matter” buttons were a way Cunningham said she felt supported by her coworkers. She maintains a double standard exists. She said other employees continue to wear accessories supporting other causes including law enforcement.
A manager at the south Everett Fred Meyer said he wasn’t allowed to discuss the matter.
According to the company’s official statement provided through Tiffany Sanders, corporate affairs manager for QFC, Kroger made wristbands to provide a “more consistent solution” than employees showing support through clothing, face masks or accessories.
The statement said the “Standing Together” message represents the company’s commitment to supporting Black associates, customers and communities against racism in all forms.
At least one worker was sent home for not removing their button, according to Auerbach. He said UFCW is advising its employees to comply with policies and report the situation.
Auerbach said a timeline for a resolution is uncertain, but that the NLRB has opened its investigation .
Ian Davis-Leonard: 425-339-3448; email@example.com; Twitter: @IanDavisLeonard.
Ian Davis-Leonard reports on working class issues through Report for America, a national service program that places emerging journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. To support Ian’s work at The Daily Herald with a tax-deductible donation, go to www.heraldnet.com/support.