Behind the friendly face of the Dill Pickle Food Co-op, workers laboring in dangerous pandemic conditions are being refused hazard pay by a vindictive management. The union is fighting back.
As COVID-19 rates in Chicago have increased dramatically and new, more contagious strains of the virus are hittingChicago, the management of Dill Pickle co-op in Logan Square are doubling down in their refusal to pay their workers hazard pay. This is the latest, and potentially most dangerous installment of Dill Pickle management’s hostile obstruction during the pandemic.
Social justice messaging is essential to the Dill Pickle’s public image. The very name of the store is a nod to the historic Dill Pickle Club, a center of Chicago’s radica political scene in the early decades of the 1900s that was founded by a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and frequented by communists and anarchists. While the grocer proclaims values of “community”, “equitable economic relationships”, “social responsibility”, and “solidarity,” the denial of hazard pay to the workers who make the store run tells a different story.
Even at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, Dill Pickle management responded sluggishly to the hazardous working conditions of the store. Masks were not provided and surfaces went unsanitized. An ongoing rodent problem prompted new staff cleaning duties, but ultimately resulted in two failed health inspections and a store shutdown in May.
As the pandemic wore on, more and more of workers’ time was taken up by sanitizing duties. After initially refusing to pay hazard rates to Dill Pickle workers, management reversed course in Spring 2020 after the union demanded two dollars per hour hazard pay and presented a petition signed by the majority of the store’s workers. Over the summer, new employees were hired with the understanding that they would receive hazard pay for laboring in dangerous conditions, though according to one report, some never did.
Subsequently, COVID exposures in the deli and kitchen departments forced quarantines and prompted the introduction of a monthly viricide treatment.
The union, a local of the IWW, has been organizing for three years and fought tooth and nail to bring management to the bargaining table last July. Before this, management had displayed hostility to the organized workers, going so far as to throw the union representative out of a staff meeting and threaten to call police, among other various anti-union tactics. Over the course of bargaining, management fought dirty. Paid meal breaks were revoked, and were only reinstated after an uproar by the union, and for only six months at that. Free shift meals for staff, although still publicly touted on the Dill Pickle website, were ended over the summer.
Early on in bargaining, an agreement was reached, stating that the employer would grant hazard pay to employees who are exposed to unusually hazardous working conditions. In the latter stages of bargaining with the union this fall, however, management suddenly informed workers they would no longer receive hazard pay, and were not willing to negotiate or discuss the issue further. Shortly thereafter on November 1, both parties signed and ratified the contract which guaranteed that the co-op would pay hazard pay to workers laboring under unusually hazardous conditions.
Since the fall, pandemic conditions have only worsened in Chicago. By mid-December, after two and a half months of withheld hazard pay, the union secretary submitted a class action grievance consisting of 11 individual grievances from 11 different workers regarding hazard pay.
Dill Pickle Workers Take Collective Action
Ignoring their contractual obligation, management refused to negotiate over hazard pay, absurdly indicating that, since everywhere in the country was infested with the virus, conditions at Dill Pickle were not “unusually hazardous.” In response, the co-op workers initiated a public campaign in the first week of January, making cloth patches to wear that demanded “Hazard Pay Now!” The campaign took off, with more and more workers wearing the patches and subsequently setting up a large sign on the union bulletin board reading “We demand hazard pay right now.”
As public pressure mounted, Dill Pickle management responded with two different stories. To the workers, they brushed aside concerns by insisting there was nothing “unusually” hazardous about the situation and anyway, hazard pay would not reduce safety risks. Outwardly to the public via social media and other channels, management claimed that it was a financial issue, and the co-op could not afford to pay its workers hazard pay.
Management also continued belittling the workers’ concerns. One hourly worker who is not in the bargaining unit was singled out for intimidation when, in a long meeting, the store’s HR manager viciously berated them for wearing the patch and supporting the hazard pay demand. “They make it feel like it’s a bad thing to be with the union,” one worker described, “but they only have problems with the union because it is holding them accountable.”
Further retaliation followed. After workers started wearing the hazard pay now patches, management removed the computer from the shop floor, which the union secretary uses to conduct union business, as guaranteed by the contract. Management went on to bar the union secretary from using any laptop, computer, or even the bandwidth of the store to conduct union business, creating as many obstacles as possible and stretching contract language well past breaking.
All the while, however, management made sure the public relations campaign was well-attended to. Soon they began airing half-hourly announcements over the store intercom about how they take COVID-19 seriously, and emphasizing the need to wear a mask and to social distance. These steps continued over the first week after the patch campaign, followed by a co-op board member meeting on January 18.
Co-ops and Progressivism
Dill Pickle has benefited from a progressive image as a Logan Square community co-op grocer. Under the guise of a democratic, member-owned, social- justice minded institution, Dill Pickle has expanded from a hole-in-the-wall shop with three aisles to a modest-sized grocery store on Milwaukee Avenue—Logan Square’s main, trendy thoroughfare. Distinct from worker co-ops, many consumer co-ops still have the veneer of progressivism, playing up a good-natured, community ethos and promising re-investment in the community. But consumer co-ops are designed to redound profits not to the workers who make them run, but rather to member-owners. As Marianne Garneau has pointed out when it comes to co-op workers, “coops are arguably even worse than corporate groceries, because they cynically use the language of community and social mission to deepen their exploitation of workers, while using their supposedly democratic structures to evade accountability.”
This describes well the dynamics at the Dill Pickle, where a community ethos is being deployed against workers fighting for basic protections and compensation. Management has responded by raising the specter of co-op collapse and bankruptcy at every turn. Workers cannot be compensated fairly for hazardous work, the management argument goes, because the co-op can’t afford it, and don’t you agree with the social-justice mission of this co-op?
The argument is utterly hollow, as was shown at the co-op board meeting on Monday, where several owners spoke up to support the workers’ demands, offered alternate solutions to provide hazard pay, and punctured management’s baseless arguments in the process. On the face of it, though, the co-op can afford to pay its workers for braving the hazardous conditions. Over the course of the pandemic, Dill Pickle received a substantial PPP loan in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in the summer, hired a growing roster of new (and superfluous) managers, hired a security guard to guard a fridge full of free food for unsheltered people, purchased an expensive new computer that has gone unused, and hired a slick anti-union attorney consultant with his own cottage industry of webinars specializing in how to disenfranchise workers in the COVID-19 era.
Needless to say, management has undermined their own arguments and shown themselves to be irresponsible administrators of the member-owner’s co-op.
Dill Pickle Workers Stand Up for Themselves
Since launching their hazard pay patch campaign, the workers have received an outpouring of support from community members on the social media pages of the Dill Pickle, where management has pushed its false and condescending talking points about the union to the public. The public support for the union and the demands has been welcomed by Dill Pickle workers, who have also consistently debunked the management talking points on the union’s own page (Instagram: iww.dpfc).
While the workers remain hopeful for a cooperative relationship with co-op management in the future, management’s current balking maneuvers are insulting and irresponsible. Instead of demonstrating leadership at the co-op, management continues attempting to weasel out of paying their workers what they agreed to pay them, deflecting blame onto the hardworking staff of Dill Pickle.
The showdown ultimately comes down to the following irreducible fact: management signed a contract in which they committed to pay their workers hazard pay. The union is demanding simply that management hold to their word.
Workers at Dill Pickle continue to demand their rightful hazard pay, and the respect due to any worker in the midst of a dangerous pandemic. “We want systemic change,” one worker told Rampant,
“if that means that upper management starts donating part of their salaries to help cover this, or if it means changing prices on higher-end things so that the pennies can add up to what is necessary, or if it means taking out grants and loans, we want to see that all avenues have been exhausted before we’re willing to accept anything less.”
Dill Pickle will be having an owner forum on the question of hazard pay on Tuesday, Jan. 26. If you are an owner, register to attend and speak in favor of Dill Pickle workers’ demand for hazard pay.
P.B. Richter is a reporter based in Chicago. His writing covers city politics and workplace issues.