Supermarket cashiers, stockers, butchers and bakers all play a vital but long undervalued role in our food chain. During the pandemic, they have been on the front lines risking — and too often losing — their lives to make sure that our families and communities stay fed.
In the United States alone, thousands of grocery workers have contracted COVID-19 and at least 70 have died. All over the world, food retail workers are being expected to work exceptional hours and at greater risk, for which they have in many cases received additional compensation.
But, unlike the pandemic, this seems to be coming to an end.
Stop &Shop, a supermarket chain in the eastern United States, ended its 10% “hero pay” bonus for its 56,000 workers in July. But grocery store chains everywhere are starting to take steps to keep workers from getting an extra $50 or so per week. The average wage for a nonunion grocery store cashier in the U.S. is only $12 per hour, well below a living wage, even for a full-time worker.
In the United States, which is seeing rapidly rising numbers of new COVID-19 infections, more than 40 grocery chains, including Kroger, Albertsons, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, have put an end to hero pay. U.K. supermarket chain Tesco terminated its 10% appreciation bonus on May 30, as COVID-19 cases continued to swell in that country, as they do in the United States.
Apparently, grocery employers are betting that workers will not protest too much in face of rising unemployment, and that they will feel lucky just to have jobs. But workers are not barrels of oil, with prices that fluctuate with demand. They should be given decent pay, commensurate with their importance.
That is why unions globally are coalescing around a simple demand: Pay food retail workers what they are worth. Permanently.
In Canada, Unifor has launched a “Fair Pay Forever” campaign. The United Food and Commercial Workers union in the United States is calling for a permanent pay rise for these front-line workers. So are other unions in the United Kingdom, Australia and Turkey.
By making hero pay permanent, we acknowledge that the world of retail has changed, and that service industry workers are at greater risk. It acknowledges that their work is essential. It also makes grocery workers better able to put food on their own tables.
And higher wages are not all that is needed. Trade unions have been pushing to secure protective equipment, enforce social distancing, reasonable scheduling and protections against the growing problem of customer abuse. The UFCW is also calling for special legal status for key U.S. workers that would give access to childcare and other benefits in a time of crisis.
This is not the time to turn back the clock to pre-pandemic levels of precarious, underpaid work. We must resist employers who are taking back hard-earned raises and trying to steamroll workers’ attempts to organize for better jobs. We must show we value the critical work that food retailers do. That means living wages and safe union jobs.
These measures will not let grocery workers live like royalty or even supermarket CEOs, but they would let them work more safely and live like the heroes they have proven to be.
Christy Hoffman is the General Secretary of UNI Global Union, which represents more than 20 million workers from more than 150 different countries. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.