Despite Weeks of Union-Busting, Workers at Imperfect Foods Vote to Unionize

Drivers at Imperfect Foods, a climate-conscious grocery delivery service, have voted to unionize after weeks of being manipulated and intimidated by union-busting consultants hired by the company’s management. The official tally was delayed by a company objection to an April vote, which the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) overruled on May 7, thereby certifying the election. It’s a victory for 80 of the company’s 1,500 total workers — delivery drivers in California and Nevada — 28 of whom voted in favor of being represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) Local 5. Twenty-three workers cast ballots against being represented by the union and an estimated 27 other eligible workers did not vote.

The Imperfect Foods delivery drivers’ union vote comes on the heels of a multi-million union-busting campaign at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, and a renewed push by workers to collectively bargain in Staten Island, New York.

Amazon’s bullying in response to workers’ efforts has become a high-profile example of how the PRO Act — which appears to be shy of three Democratic votes in the Senate — would protect workers as they seek better conditions. Meanwhile, attempted union-busting at Imperfect Foods facilities calls attention to how deeply entrenched anti-union sentiment remains in United States workplaces, even among some of the most socially and environmentally conscious businesses.

Imperfect Foods is appealing to many who are interested in diverting dollars from the largest corporate grocers like Amazon and Walmart. The company was founded to reduce food waste, which according to data from the United Nations, is responsible for between 8 percent and 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions through sources including generating methane by rotting in landfills. The problem Imperfect Foods set out to help solve is a massive one: An estimated 17 percent of all food produced worldwide is ultimately thrown out without being eaten. In the U.S. it’s even worse, with between 30 percent and 40 percent of the food supply wasted.

By intercepting and sourcing goods with minor cosmetic damage, the company appears to be having a notable positive impact in the United States. According to its 2020 impact report, which Imperfect Foods released in March, its operations diverted 20,663 tons of CO2 emissions by eliminating food waste, plus another 12,800 tons of CO2 attributable to its delivery system, which bundles orders strategically by neighborhood to cut down on single trips by individual shoppers or delivery drivers. In total, that’s the equivalent of providing electricity to over 6,000 homes for one year, or taking 7,278 passenger vehicles off the road, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s equivalency calculator.

Chris Jasinski is a driver for Imperfect Foods, who has been working for the company for just over a year. “During the pandemic we experienced a massive rush of interest and a bottleneck of orders,” Jasinski told Truthout. As demand for grocery delivery services grew, he and his co-workers clocked 12- to 14-hour shifts, loading vans with 30- to 40-pound boxes of food and unloading them 100 to 200 times per day. Drivers earn about $20 per hour, which Jasinski points out is better than most entry-level options in the Bay Area. But he says workers who had been with the company before the pandemic-related boom still hadn’t gotten raises they were promised as part of the hiring process. While the company does offer health insurance, many workers have children, and adding dependents raises premiums to around $600 per month.

An anonymous review by a former warehouse manager on Indeed.com from March 2021 describes an increasing divide between warehouse and office personnel as the company grew, a dynamic which they said led to significant employee turnover every few weeks. Another review by a former “warehouse lead” pointed out that employees “never receive pay increases as stated in contracts.”

Jesus Gomez of Sacramento has worked for Imperfect Foods for three years. He says he loves his job, but has only gotten one 49-cent raise in spite of increasing responsibilities and having to deal with chaos as the company expanded. A delivery driver in Seattle complained in February 2021 about employee schedules changing several times per day. “You could work an eight-hour day or a 13-hour day and there’s no way to know until you’re sitting in a van.” A more scathing review refers to debilitating stress on the job and hours that are unpredictable and impossible for workers with families.

Jasinski said he and his coworkers started talking about seeking outside support in the summer of 2020 and filed a petition for an election with the NLRB in February 2021. About three-and-a-half weeks leading up to the April 12 mail-in election deadline, Imperfect Foods workers were required to attend regular, mandatory meetings often lasting over two hours and run by outside consultants.

Much like what Amazon workers reported in Bessemer, Imperfect Foods workers said they were presented with intimidating hypotheticals. Consultants talked at length about workers in other union drives who were replaced by contractors or others who ended up losing wages or benefits after unionizing, according to Jasinski. UFCW Local 5 noted in a statement that the company also promised raises and promotions to those who voted against unionizing.

Captive audience meetings like this were illegal under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, but a 1941 Supreme Court decision enabled bosses to use implicit threats to urge workers not to unionize, holding that not doing so would violate bosses rights to free speech. As John Logan has reported for Truthout, captive audience meetings remain unlawful in most democracies.

In response to a request for comment about the company’s alleged anti-union activity, a company representative referred Truthout to a statement in which Imperfect Foods CEO Philip Behn said the company owed it to employees to make sure all ballots were counted. “I have a deep admiration for organized labor,” Behn wrote, highlighting the crucial work of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in advocating for improved worker conditions for farmworkers, which, he explained, laid the groundwork for companies like Imperfect Foods to build upon.

The statement acknowledged that the company had not done enough to listen to drivers’ concerns in northern California, and committed to “do better” at resolving employee complaints directly. “That way labor unions can focus their scarce resources on improving conditions of workers in industries and organizations where their voices won’t be heard,” Behn wrote.

However, Jasinski maintains that without a union, even the greenest company will still prioritize profits over the needs of its members. “It doesn’t mean they don’t care about us at all, but they have their priorities, and forming a union is a way to ensure that the workers themselves have the capacity to continue to advocate for the changes that they might need,” he said.

In addition to its rigorous environmental and climate commitments, Imperfect Foods also presents itself as actively anti-racist. Over half of the company’s 1,500 employees identify as people of color, according to the company’s data, though it notes that the same cannot be said for senior leadership.

Workers question how a company can be both anti-racist and anti-union. According to a January 2021 study in the American Journal of Political Science, unions may actually be an essential element for eliminating racism in the workplace. The study, which is the first quantitative analysis of the relationship between unions and racial attitudes, found that white union workers demonstrated less “racial resentment” than nonunion members and increased support for policies that benefit Black people. The decline in union membership from 30 percent to 10 percent since 1970, which has been a major driver of wage inequality, may have limited this anti-racist impact to fewer white workers, the researchers note.

Joe Uehlein is president of the Labor Network for Sustainability. He told Truthout that the PRO Act would stop companies from subjecting workers to hours of mandatory union-busting meetings, like the ones Amazon and Imperfect Foods workers were required to sit through. The ability to unionize without company meddling might also prevent companies that brand themselves as progressive from straying from their mission and running “rough-shod over human and worker rights on the job.”

While companies like Imperfect Foods hold great potential to contribute to solutions that chip away at the climate crisis, those benefits must not come on the backs of workers, thereby creating new or exacerbating old social issues. “The biggest problem in doing right by our ecology, right by sustainability, right by climate change is the fear that working people have every morning at the kitchen table when they worry about: ‘How am I going to get a pension, how am I going to get health care?’” Uehlein said.

It is no coincidence that the Nordic countries, which have the highest union density in the world, Uehlein says, also have made some of the most significant progress at curbing contributions to the climate emergency, as people are able to more wholeheartedly commit to personal, political and professional work to tackle emissions and transition to clean energy. In contrast, in the U.S., where over half of all residents live paycheck-to-paycheck, “what we have is this culture of fear, and an economy that reinforces it.”

In spite of the obstacles, union membership actually increased in 2020, up .5 percent from 2019 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — and workers who were unionized made 16 percent more than those who were not. In February 2020, Instacart workers unionized for the first time, and in January 2021, Safeway grocery delivery drivers in the Bay Area became the first in the chain to do so, both through the UFCW. “As technology makes it easier to access groceries during the pandemic, we must ensure that the essential workers in this sector who are on the frontlines are protected and have a voice on the job,” Jim Araby, UFCW Local 5 strategic campaigns director said in a statement.

As Anita Raman and other researchers at the Worker Institute at Cornell University have written, we do not have to choose between fighting climate change and providing high-quality jobs. “In fact, we can only create true climate resilience when we protect workers and allow them to organize,” Raman and her co-authors wrote. “If the United States wants to truly mitigate and adapt to climate change, we must ensure that all climate jobs are high quality and protected by union contracts.”

Jasinski emphasized that Imperfect Foods should adhere to the company’s stated commitment to provide high-quality jobs as it works toward improving the food system and curbing carbon emissions.

“As [Imperfect Foods] grows,” Jasinski said, referring to the company’s expansion this year into Tucson, Salt Lake City, Boise and Phoenix, “it’s really important that the workers who are driving the growth of this company continue to have a seat at the table.”