Progress, Passion and Power – The Evolution of the UFCW Western States Council

All organizations are constantly changing. Acknowledging this is also to recognize that change does not automatically move in one direction. Organizations can grow, increase their capacity to act in the world, and expand their influence. Organizations and institutions can also go through periods of decline, lose the ability to define and accomplish goals, become torn by internal chaos and lurch from one direction to another with no strategic purpose.

We outline here our belief that during the past two-and-a-half years, the UFCW Western States Council has made a series of strategic decisions that have consolidated the organization, increased its political and social influence and accomplished several critical goals. This was achieved through systematic planning, research, rigorous implementation and a keen understanding of how power operates in California.

The economy, politics and power are always in a state of flux. This document is therefore not a hard and fast paint by the numbers approach to organizational development. It is however, an outline of what can happen when an organization is willing to confront where it is, decide where it wants to go and is determined to make the changes necessary to get there. This document is a narrative of courage and of the risks and possibilities inherent in seriously committing to projects and clearly articulated goals.


Shortly after Executive-Director Jim Araby was hired in late 2012, a strategic planning process was initiated that brought together the whole council at Stanford University. The broad purpose of the process was to help prepare the organization to move forward together by understanding our past, agreeing on our priorities, and devoting the resources and energy to clear goals.

With any planning process there are assumptions derived from experience that shape which questions the organization faces. At the Stanford gathering, some of the key issues that emerged were as follows:

  • What were the strengths and weaknesses of the organization? This required an honest assessment of the past and current status of the council.
  • What was the current economic environment that the UFCW operated within and how did our key position in the private sector provide opportunities for organizational leverage?
  • How does power operate in California – at the local, regional and legislative levels – and what changes does the UFCW need to make to maximize its strength? Was the past legislative strategy and practice consistent with the current organizational needs and statewide political dynamics?
  • How can the Council leverage its full political power on a regional basis?
  • What does an effective strategy for change look like? How is it constructed?
  • What are the responsibilities of leadership? How is it earned and how does leadership help gather and release personal and collective energy?
  • How should the UFCW extend its organizational capacity by partnering with community, social justice and food justice organizations?

The outcome of the strategic planning process led to several critical insights and more importantly, concrete proposals for moving forward.

  • Council leadership determined that dramatic change was needed to maximize organizational strength.
  • An understanding was reached that a buy-in from all local leaders was essential for moving forward.
  • Council decided that it should have its own legislative agenda that it could fight for at the state and local levels. It was also determined that the council should develop its ability to act politically in campaigns in a more flexible fashion.
  • Leadership determined that building alliances with the food justice movement, minimum wage campaigns, anti-poverty advocates and other community groups would strengthen the organizations legislative power, community presence and organizing outreach.

One of the lasting lessons of the planning process was the recognition of the need for a consistent and ongoing evaluation of the work of the council. The dialogue at the planning sessions was honest about our strengths and weaknesses, self-aware and focused on concrete goals and responsibilities. That approach provided the foundation for healthy progress.

Initial Follow-up

Part of the follow-up to the planning process was gathering information about the context that we were working within. A key recognition was that as part of a major sector of the private economy, the UFCW operates in an economic core of the California economy. As such, the opportunities for inserting the organization into significant public policy debates on behalf of our members were clear.

In late 2012, discussions started about how to tackle issues that were impacting our industry and our core jurisdiction. The negative impact of part-time work and how large employers were using loopholes in the law to avoid providing healthcare coverage to their employees was a critical problem. In 2012, more than 7 million Californians lacked health insurance at some point during the year.

It was clear that many employers, particularly in the non-union sector, were pushing their part-time employees onto the public Medi-Cal system, shifting the financial burden to the taxpayer. In effect, the tax-payers of California were subsidizing unscrupulous employers while also allowing non-union companies to operate at a comparative cost advantage.

Our thinking dovetailed with movement at the federal level to expand healthcare coverage through the Affordable Care Act, ObamaCare.

2013 Legislation – Organization Building and Positioning for Power

In February 2013, Assembly Member Jimmy Gomez, a Democrat from Los Angeles, introduced the UFCW sponsored bill, AB 880. The bill, called the Fair Share Health Care Law, was designed to require large employers who had employees enrolled in Medi-Cal to pay a premium into a trust fund that would provide reimbursements to providers of healthcare in California.

Initiating the legislation established a number of important markers and transformations for the States Council. Taking legislative initiative sent a message to the political world that the UFCW in California was ready to step up its political presence, no longer content to follow the lead of others. This departure from the predictable behavior of the past caught the attention of statewide labor leadership, the business community and the institutional players in Sacramento.

Organizationally, we understood that the solidifying of our council operations required the creation of a common pursuit. Building “communities” requires a common ethic and common goals, and very often a target of opposition that is pushed against. By taking the initiative, the council was pushing against tradition, departing from expected patterns of operation, testing our political allies and challenging our organizational and political capacity

The context of our efforts was also key. It was also important that in 2012, the Democrats in the legislature had achieved a two-thirds super-majority, giving them the power to initiate and pass tax bills and to override any potential Gubernatorial veto. That kind of power is rare in legislative bodies, offering unprecedented opportunities as well as potential contradictions.


As AB 890 was introduced, the council mobilized our membership for what we knew would be an intense battle. We engaged our rank and file through direct mail, educational programs and ongoing lobbying as the bill made it’s way through the legislative process. A key goal was to create internal organizational unity, but also to increase the political knowledge and skills of our membership. Our belief was that if we engaged our members with issues that were clearly defined and strongly felt, they would response with enthusiasm. That is exactly what happened.

We also wanted to clarify what power was, how it was used and what it was good for. New rank and file leadership, armed with confident and effective strategies, would emerge out of the crucible of this fight.

In late March, the bill was double referred to the Health and Revenue and Tax Committees of the Assembly. As a number of special elections were taking place at this time, a concrete two-thirds majority was never solidified. Regardless, the council and our allies at the State Federation of Labor held lobby days in February, March and April and worked the membership to garner the needed support to bring the bill to the floor for a vote.

By mid-May, our work had paid off. We had forty-eight votes that we were sure of so we pushed for the bill to be brought to the floor. During this time we also had ongoing conversations with the Speaker’s Office, and encountered resistance that helped to make it clear what we were up against. While we had created a strong sense of unity within our organization and within the labor movement, we knew that we could not implicitly count on the support of every Democrat.

The bill passed out of the Assembly Rules and Assembly Health Committee in April and out of the Appropriations Committee in May.

AB 880 was finally brought to the floor of the Assembly at the end of June, the last day to vote bills out of the house of origin. Three Democrats voted against the bill and five abstained, keeping it from moving to the Senate.

Lessons Learned

The “defeat” of AB 880 was also a victory. It was a victory because the fight helped build our organization and because we learned several lessons about politics. We paid attention to what emerged from the political process itself.

  • We can’t assume the automatic support of all Democrats, even those who have been close to our union in the past.
  • Be honest about your assumptions and the assessment of your capacity to accomplish things. Hold each other up to responsibility and evaluation.
  • Trust but verify. Don’t assume you have support unless you receive explicit commitments for concrete and clear actions.
  • The necessity of personalizing. Lobbying “Assembly Members” as an abstract entity in neither possible nor effective. By “personalizing” our request for support, we entered into a personal relationship with individual members that created mutual responsibilities and obligations. While personalizing can also be polarizing, it is a necessity of effective organizing. The tension this process creates de-escalates with victory.
  • Our members are the most effective spokespersons. A lobbyist develops strategy and provides key information. Members are the embodiment of a policy issue, the lived-life of struggle in the workplace and community.
  • Our opponents will always have more money than us which we make up for by having people who believe in themselves and in their union. That is our ultimate advantage.
  • Leadership is earned not given. Those who emerge as leaders through hard work, intelligence and self-control are often unexpected. Look for people who others are willing to follow and for those who have the ability to increase their own personal capacity and those of others. They are your natural leaders.
  • In democratic societies, power and justice take place (or should) in public. By asserting our power in a public space, we were expressing our determination to be recognized.
  • Justice requires conflict and conflict is often clarifying. In many instances, self-definition comes from opposition. By questioning our organizational past, by opposing entrenched interests, by even opposing some of our political “friends,” the UFCW States Council began to re-define itself and gave birth to a qualitatively different organization.
  • Power is wasted unless it is utilized. While there are times when holding back on the exercise of power is a strategic necessity (numerous US foreign policy examples come to mind) there are also moments when the refusal to utilize the power you have is a lost opportunity. As Council Executive-Directory Jim Araby pointed out in a 2013 opinion piece in the San Jose Mercury News, political caution at a moment of great economic necessity is irresponsible.

One other key lesson we learned is that we needed our own lobbyist in Sacramento who had only one client and one allegiance – the UFCW. It was clear during the lobbying process that led up to the vote that we would have been organizationally stronger with a single staff person who was responsible only to us. The complexities of Sacramento alliances, economic interests, and the nature of the current lobbying business created a situation where we could not be certain that the interests of our organization were primary.

After an organizational evaluation, in late 2013 the council hired Sam Rodriquez as our political director with responsibility for planning and managing our legislative agenda. Part of that organizational shift was a re-evaluation of our political strategy to prepare for the 2014 legislative session.

Politics, Economics and Moving Forward in 2014

In discussions within the council and with Rodriquez, we determined that there were several concrete goals that emerged from the 2013 experience and from a deeper understanding of potential for growth. The council had been successful at placing a marker in the sand. We had proved that we could be aggressive and effective politically and we built up a cadre of educated and enthusiastic members. We had shown a toughness that inspired self-confidence and a tinge of fear in our opponents. We needed to continue to shape our own destiny.

A two-year council per-capita increase provided the resources for expanding our reach. Approaching the 2014 legislative year, we determined that strategically incremental legislative victories would be both possible and preferable to taking on the whole retail industry. With an enhanced understanding of the legislative process the council continued to build our intellectual and organizational capacity.

Shelved – Information as Power

A key analytical point of departure was our understanding of the key role that the UFCW plays in the private sector economy. As the second largest private sector union in California, and in a state whose union density is growing, our ability to leverage our position in a crucial area of the economy had been underutilized.

Additionally, our understanding of the changing nature of the food chain – the ways in which food is produced, processed, shipped, marketed and sold – had to be enhanced. This situation demanded research and outreach.

In early 2014, the council engaged the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, the Food Chain Workers Alliance and University of California, Davis Professor Chris Benner to undertake a study of our workers and our industry.

Shelved, the study released in June, 2014, contained industry and government data as well as information gleaned from close to 1000 worker surveys and 20 in-depth interviews with workers and employers throughout the state.

This comprehensive study of the retail industry found that while the California food retail industry had thrived, a low-cost non-union business model had put serious downward pressure on wages and working conditions. Low-cost and low-skill operations like Wal-Mart and Target, combined with non-union “natural” and gourmet food stores have pushed workers into poverty and onto the public tax rolls. A startling fact that emerged from the study is that thirty-six percent of California food retail workers use some form of public assistance at a cost of $662 million to the state taxpayers.

Unionized workers, due to low road competition, have seen their wage rates decline by 16.7 % in the last decade. While a “union advantage” for wages and working conditions still holds, the unionization rate among grocery store workers has declined by almost one-quarter during the last decade, mainly due to the growth of general merchandise stores that sell food.

Racial inequalities were also systemic. Workers of color (specifically Latinos and Blacks) in Los Angeles County experienced significant negative disparities in training opportunities, promotions, scheduling hardships and unpaid hours.

While some of the major union stores pursued dubious financial strategies like share buy backs, debt repayments and dividend increases, more thoughtful approaches emphasized investment in employees, productivity and capital improvements.

The implications of the report were clear to the council leadership and broader political community. The policy recommendations that grew out of the report included:

  • Raise wages for food retail workers by expanding collective bargaining and raising state and city minimum wage levels.
  • Campaign for legislation that reduces incentives for low-road employers to provide sub-standard wages, benefits and relies on part-time workers.
  • Create a level playing field for unionized employers by linking any government subsidy such as tax breaks, zoning assistance or Cal FreshWorks Fund loans, on the provision of quality full-time jobs with livable wages and benefits.

The purpose of the report was to provide key economic information about our industry that could provide an empirical foundation for our public policy initiatives. Also, the process of creating the report was an indication that our organization was willing to look honestly at the situation we were in and the challenges before us. Instead of sticking our head in the proverbial sand, we committed to face the changing world that surrounded us.

Some of the grim economic data of Shelved, also encouraged us to reach out to community organizations and food justice movements who we have a moral obligation to align with and a political imperative for joining.

Building Community Support – Connecting the Food Chain

One of the initial efforts at expanding our outreach to community organizations was to hire a staff person to work with the Jobs with Justice organization in San Francisco. Jobs with Justice is an alliance of labor, community, faith-based and student organizations that fight for workers in their communities and in their workplaces.

Some of their priority campaigns included the successful “Fight for $15,” which helped raise the minimum wage in San Francisco, and the Retail Workers Bill of Rights which promoted full-time work, predictable schedules and job security for tens of thousands of retail, restaurant, custodial and security workers.

The council hired organizer Michelle Lim to work full time on solidifying our relationship with JWJ and helping to build a strategic alliance that will have a long-term benefit for our members.

The work in San Francisco is a model for key partnerships is other cities, builds community support for the UFCW and will lead to organizing opportunities in the non-union sector.

The research and community outreach is also an initial investment in connecting us analytically and organizationally with other links in the complex and changing process that drives the food business in California. The council determined that we need to be acutely aware and actively engaged with workers in the producing, logistics, transportation, storage, marketing and global dimensions of the food business. We have started on that road.

2014 Legislative Victories

As the 2014 legislative session began, we were prepared to initiate a number of our bills that could “move the ball down the field,” politically. The bills were chosen based on a number of criteria. Would the bill be helpful to our members and the unionized sector of our industry? Would be have a reasonable possibility of passage and signature by the Governor? Were there opportunities to build effective coalitions around the bills that would also increase our long term political relationships and capacity? Was there a larger “public good” derived from the bills that would garner favorable public opinion and potential allies?

The bills we initiated and pushed included AB 1792, SB 270 and AB 1522.

AB 1792 was an offshoot of the previous years tax bill AB 880. Rather than fighting the retail industry we decided to take a smaller but significant step. AB 1792 called for a report from the largest 500 employers in California that would show how many of their employees were using Medi-cal.

The clear intent was to provide the data that could substantiate the existence of a major public policy scandal – the use of public tax dollars to avoid providing adequate health care for workers. The bill required the State Department of Health Care Services to annually inform the Employment Development Department of the names and social security numbers of all recipients of the Medi-Cal program and to determine cost of state and federally funded benefits provided by the Medi-Cal program.

AB 1792 sailed through the Assembly and the Senate with bi-partisal support and was signed by Governor Brown on September 30, 2014.

SB 270, the plastic bag ban, had a more difficult trajectory. While we were initially working closely with the California Grocer’s Association, we realized that they could not deliver Republican votes in support of the bill. At one point while the bill was in the Appropriations Committee, we made a tactical decision to pull our support from the bill.

The main issue for pulling back on our support had to do with elements of the bill that we had been assured would be amended. These dealt with how the fees pursuant to the bill would be collected and spent. Pulling our support from the bill meant that the bill failed on two readings on the floor as some liberal Democrats decided not to vote for the bill. The bill was kept on call in the Assembly.

Within 72 hours of pulling our support we had secured, in writing, the commitment from Safeway and Stater Brothers to work with us to alleviate our concerns. With our presence back on the bill it was passed in the Assembly and Senate and signed into law in September, 2014

The UFCW also followed through on its commitment to help the less fortunate in California by teaming up with the Western Center on Law and Poverty during the writing and legislative work on the bill. The Western Center represents the interests of poor and low-income people who rely on food assistance programs for themselves and their children.

The partnership assured that the bill would relieve anyone on a public benefit program like Cal Fresh, from paying the .10 cent charge for paper grocery bags in California stores.

According to Jessica Bartholow, Legislative Advocate for the Western Center, the joint work with the UFCW was critical for the bill’s passage and for a more profound understanding of the economic and social connections between UFCW members and the people the Western Center fights for.

“Working with the UFCW which was taking a leadership role in Sacramento, we were both able to tell our stories in a more effective way,” Bartholow commented. “We were able to deepen people’s understanding of what poverty in California looks like and also to build support among UFCW members who provide recipients of public benefits a dignified shopping experience.”

Bartholow also pointed out that according to the USDA, for every billion dollars of Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program spent by low-income Californians, 7000 to 13,000 jobs are created, primarily in the grocery and food preparation sector.

We demonstrated through the passage of AB 1792, the ability of UFCW to assert unilateral power while at the same time entering into strategic alliances that added to our knowledge and reputations. We also tested the organizing principle that often the “action is in the reaction,” that the reaction to the initiatives you take are as important as your initial action as it helps clarify your next moves.

By remaining disciplined and tough when necessary and compromising when the time was right, we were able to demonstrate a beneficial mix of risk and political maturity. Our organization had local knowledge of the terrain, sturdy and important allies and the passion necessary for sustained commitment.

The plastic bags ban was one of two bills we passed in 2014 that set a precedent for the nation. The other was AB 1522, the paid sick days bill. Again, we had to demonstrate the ability to think and maneuver through a difficult political process.

In this case, because the Governor did not want home care workers covered in the bill, it was opposed by SEIU and AFSCME, both major political players in Sacramento.

We stayed supportive of the bill because we knew that it would help 4.5 million workers obtain three mandated sick days that would provide a minimum of decency for those suffering from illness. We partnered with the State Building and Construction Trades unions to push forward the bill. Even though employers and other major organizations opposed the bill, we passed the bill and the Governor signed it.

2015 Legislative Action

In February, 2015, the States Council kicked off its legislative agenda by bringing local members and leadership to Sacramento to lobby on our bills. These included bills on Fair Scheduling, Worker Retention and raising the minimum wage.

The Fair Scheduling Bill, would provide for five days advanced notice on work schedules. No mother or father should miss their children’s doctor’s appointment, meeting with teachers or other important family obligations due to the chaotic scheduling practices of retail store managers. For those who preach “family values,” this bill is the opportunity to walk the way they talk.

In the wake of hostile corporate take-overs, mergers designed only for stockholders or corporate executives and other irresponsible business practices, the UFCW is also sponsoring the Grocery Worker Retention Bill. Authored by Assembly Member Lorena Gonzalez from San Diego and co-authored by Senator Connie Leyva, the bill would require any new employer who purchases an existing grocery store to retain the current workers for 90 days. It is our belief that the expertise, productivity and commitment of UFCW union workers provides clear competitive advantages for any large retail store owner.

We have also joined with a broad based statewide coalition to significantly raise the minimum wage in California and to index that increase to the cost of living. California is one of the most expensive places to live in the country. No family who is working full-time should live in poverty, but that is exactly what is happening to tens of thousands of hard working people. Raising and indexing the minimum wage would provide hope and decency for every worker no matter what sector of the economy.

Our members approached their meetings with legislators with respect their office deserved but also with an understanding of their own standing as workers, as voters and as proud representatives of their fellow union members. They did not speak only for themselves but for thousands of others in similar situations.

Local 1428 member Monica Jimenez told Assemblyman Roger Hernandez about having to miss doctors and school appointments for her 9 and 11-year-old children due to late and erratic scheduling.

Mary Grammatico from Local 1442 also told Hernandez that “The union stores that provide advance scheduling find out that it not only helps the employees to balance family and work responsibilities but it also helps the employers develop predictability and stability in their stores.”

After agreeing to support the UFCW bills, Assemblyman Hernandez told the group of members that they were “warriors for society,” because their legislative efforts were directed at helping not just themselves, but workers throughout California. “We’ll get the scheduling bill signed,” he assured them.

Members and leaders were educated, organized, and ready to spread their message and committed to the long haul fight to pass these three bills. Before walking together to the Capitol to meet with legislators, Executive Director Jim Araby told reminded the local leaders and members that, “This is our time, a moment we have prepared for.”

Politics and Independent Action

At the same time that the States Council was taking the initiative legislatively, we also shifted our approach to engaging in political campaigns. In the past, we have participated in political campaigns mostly by following the lead of the state and local labor federations. While generally this is an effective and preferred approach, we have also determined that it is in the best interest of our organization to act independently in the political arena as well.

To that end the States Council created a 527 political committee that has the ability to run independent expenditure campaigns when needed. Independent action also allowed us to craft and send a message that was designed by us and tailored to our member’s interests.

The other, somewhat more abstract reason for pursuing independent political action is the understanding that our ability to restructure our organizations movements in public space also challenges a social ordering process by which people and institutions are locked in place. There are times when an organization, in order to be effective, has to break away from predictable and therefore vulnerable positions. We have now stated explicitly that no one but ourselves will choreograph our actions in the public arena.

The council also believes that this new stance encourages a sense of identification and ownership of our organization by our membership.

The Nature of Power

While one of the most famous dictums about power is that it tends to corrupt, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. The British politician Lord Action was writing in 1887 about the behavior of Popes and Kings when he articulated this axiom. He was referring to inaccessible and unaccountable power that was unilateral, domineering and opaque. But Civil Rights leader Bayard Rustin pointed out in his famous essay from 1965, From Protest to Politics, that the absence of power also corrupts. Powerlessness leaves people and organizations vulnerable, directionless and very often depressed.

If power never leaves a vacuum, it means that if we don’t have power, someone else does. In the past we let other organizations shape our political orientation and determine our fate. The problem was not that we had close friends and allies, but that we did not recognize our own potential for gathering and utilizing power. As the great organizer Fred Ross pointed out, “Organizing is providing people with the opportunity to become aware of their own capabilities and potential.”

All of the leaders of the States Council have embraced that message.

A New Tradition

Creating a new tradition may seem like an oxymoron for how can tradition be new? But in the movement forward of the UFCW, the foundations of that change are provided by our past. Creating something “new” is always grounded in the resources of our tradition yet anticipates something substantially different. We create our own future, but not under economic and political conditions of our choosing.

There is always a risk in assertions of creative energy and independent action. Our council has not turned political independence into an ideology or fixed belief, impervious to the shifting entanglements and fluid dynamics of politics. Our approach is an organizational and political wager, a faith that the locals and council we are building will be capable of meeting the challenges we face. Through the victories we have achieved we have demonstrated our approach is working.

Over the past three years this is what we have seen a leadership that has embraced an exciting vision of our future. We have witnessed a membership that is ready to provide energy, insight and passion to our work. We have developed a plan, we have implemented it and we have changed the political landscape.

This is how historical change occurs. This is how a new tradition is built and passed on. This is our time.