Rick Smith Files | Interview with Tony Helfer, President UFCW Local 23: Victory at Kroger, Building Solidarity, and the Need to Keep Pushing Back


 Editor’s Note: This interview aired live on the Rick Smith Show on September 16, 2011.  You can access the original audio version by clicking on the Rick Smith Show Exclusive Interview image below. 

Intro music: Mr. Picketman

[Rick Smith]: Yep, I couldn’t agree more, Mr. Picketman. Mr. Picketman is a member of UFCW [United Food and Commercial Workers] Local 1428 out in California. I like that song, we use it quite often. Anyway, it’s been reported that Kroger and their workers have reached a tentative agreement today…that’s good news. A lot of the online action that we’ve been seeing and a lot of the action we’ve been seeing for the past couple of weeks and months evidently have paid off and I’ve asked Tony Helfer, President of UFCW Local 23, to come talk to us a little bit about it. Tony, thanks for taking time for me.

[Tony Helfer]: Absolutely. Love to be here Rick.

[Rick Smith]: Congratulations on the…I’m hoping an agreement. I’m hoping it’s a good one.

[Tony Helfer]: We do too. I think it’s something that the membership will be able to live with. This was a tough roll. I mean, we’ve been on an extension three times, our contract expired back on June 11th. But, being determined, we did some actions, we let the company hear us. I think this worked out pretty well.

[Rick Smith]: You know, I saw on facebook the other day you had a huge flash mob…There was some really outstanding organization going on there.

[Tony Helfer]: Yeah, we tried something different this time around. Early…around April we decided—we had been experimenting with facebook for a while—to put up a separate room for the Kroger members and they would be specifically invited to come into this room and they could share with me as president of the local on a daily basis, any questions, comments, updates on negotiations and that was really working well. We were building a tremendous solidarity in this room. I had over 25% of the membership sign up to go into this room. We would have threads that would go hundreds of conversations long and people would post images of labor, the fist of Wisconsin, and different videos, conversations, asking questions. And we came up with this idea. We couldn’t get Kroger’s attention the way we wanted. So we said, you know what? There are so many of us here, if we got together, maybe we could go to their facebook page and get their attention that way.

[Rick Smith]: Yup.

[Tony Helfer]: So that’s what we did. We picked a time, we made a separate room into facebook, so only those people who we would specifically invite would be in that room. The reason we did that is that word got out over a period of time that people were looking at our facebook page and we didn’t want them to know what was going on with this facebook action. We had about 60 members sign up, we picked a date and a time, and put together a little bit of a news release. Then we hit Kroger’s facebook page all at once with about 60 members [and then] we built this into some friends. We  just posted real-life stories about what it’s like to struggle working in a grocery store, making ends meet, the unfairness of some of the things Kroger had done, and just put it so that the public could also see that.

And it just exploded.

For about two and a half hours, if you went to Kroger’s facebook page there was nothing but our posts on every book, room, wherever you went on that page, we were in there.

[Rick Smith]: Well, it shows the power of social media. I mean, you look at what’s going on…Egypt being the perfect example. This social media is a way to really engage people on a one-to-one basis and over a large number as well. I mean, facebook, twitter, all of them are excellent tools for labor.

[Tony Helfer]: Well, that’s what we’re learning about. We’ve been experimenting with this—even just for negotiations with your members—if you put a room together and they can specifically ask questions, the questions stay there with the answers. So other members who may not have been there at that time can come back and see the thread, the questions that were asked, and the comments that run after that. I mean, this is a fantastic educational tool. You’d be surprised how many members are on facebook—and we friend each other—and I’m telling you what a great tool to get information out.

It’s been a winner for us and we’re going to be using this in a lot more of our bargaining going forward.

[Rick Smith]: Good. I mean there are 750,000,000 people on facebook so there’s an excellent opportunity to draw people together for the common good. You look at the things that aren’t on-line, that aren’t the social media, the fact that you had rallies, you went out and you did some protesting, did some leafleting and stuff like that. The social media stuff could help in that way as well by getting people out.

[Tony Helfer]: And it builds solidarity. You know, when you put an action on there and you go and take a bunch of pictures of what you’ve done and then you put it on there and there’s videos of the news clips…the people see that and they get energized by it. It helps build solidarity; it builds a common thread: “We’re all in this together.” They can see the results of it. And, I’ll tell you what, it was a great recruiting tool to get members more involved in negotiations than they’ve ever been involved.

You know, a lot of times you go into bargaining and you don’t get a lot of the information, it’s hush hush, and you get surprised when the whole thing comes out. We were sharing almost everything with the members as we moved forward in these rooms. The interest is what I loved about this. They were all eager to know what was going on, to ask questions. When you’ve got an informed membership, you’ve got a union that works.

[Rick Smith]: That’s what I think has to happen. Not just in your local, but across the country. Because as we’re seeing these right-wing attacks, we see how well-funded they are, we see how well-organized they are…we’ve got to be doing the same exact stuff.

[Tony Helfer]: Yeah, and you know Rick, you can turn this into a tool in other areas. Now I’m using this to help educate our members. Even though we’re coming to the conclusion of these negotiations—hopefully, we’ll ratify a contract—the members are already asking me tonight: “Tony, can we keep this page open? This was fantastic!” Not only did they build friendships and bonding, but now they know more about their contract, they ask questions about the issues that happen in their workplaces and how they’re supposed to respond, or could respond. We help with investigations right on the facebook page. This is a tool that we’ve got to explore.

[Rick Smith]: Oh, absolutely and I’ve got to be honest, if you were to let this go, I’d have some words for you because that’s how you have to communicate to people. I go back to Samuel Gompers who was the founder of the AFL. Do you know what his first job was?

[Tony Helfer]: No I don’t.

[Rick Smith]: He was a reader in the cigar factory. He actually read the newspaper to all the people making cigars.

[Tony Helfer]: That’s fantastic.

[Rick Smith]: And that’s how we need to be talking to people. Now, we’re not going to have somebody who’s reading the newspaper, but they are going to be reading facebook, they may read tweets, and do all of that stuff as well.

[Tony Helfer]: Not only that, but we put a lot of political information in there too. We need people to get involved in action. There’s going to be a rally about this—you know, the PLCB [Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board] which we represent—this has been a good tool to help build with them. So, the people know what’s going on, they get the email until, well they did get the emails until just recently facebook changed that aspect of it. I’m not sure why they quite sending all the emails, I’ve got to figure that out.

It was great. You’d get up in the morning and you’d see that fifteen members came into that room and they would comment on something, and I could answer every single, solitary question that they had asked myself. And they also liked that interaction they’re getting with the leadership of the local union.

[Rick Smith]: Yep.

[Tony Helfer]: And it made it a lot easier for me, I didn’t have to pick up the phone and call a hundred people. I could get on there and answer specific questions and then the members who weren’t on there could go on and see the question and answer and that educated them.

This is a great tool, we’ve just got to find more and more ways of using it.

[Rick Smith]: I absolutely agree. You brought up the PLCB. Where do you think that’s going to be going here in the coming days? I know the radical here, the wrecking ball crew here in Harrisburg, they want to privatize the state Wine and Spirits shops. Do you see this moving quickly here in the next couple of months? And, how do we stop it?

[Tony Helfer]: Well, I believe that it’s going to come back around, but I think it may come under a different face this time. The Tarzai bill was just another flat out mess. And I think Corbett had indicated that once he got the study that he was having done, he would himself bring out a bill. I mean, they’re not going to be satisfied until they privatize these stores, so this is a constant fight for us. They’ve only got to win once, we’ve got to win every time.

We have our membership energized, we have a lot of professional people working for us to help us develop our fight. We’re ready for them when they come back again. I look for this to come up in the fall as I do “right-to-work” in the state of Pennsylvania. We’re all going to have our hands full and it’s going to keep coming until we can get these guys out of office. That’s just the way it is right now.

[Rick Smith]: Yeah, and part of what we were talking about with facebook and twitter and all these other things, these are the tools that you need to help build coalitions. We just talked to Rev. C. J. Hawking of Arise Chicago about the week long Hyatt strike the other night. Building the kind of coalitions that they did out there: community groups, interfaith worker justice groups, all these people coming together. Out in your area we’ve done some things with Pittsburgh United, groups getting involved with what you’re doing.

[Tony Helfer]: That’s exactly right. Now, we’ve built some pretty strong coalitions—as a matter of fact, I’m part of Pittsburgh United and they’re one of the most progressive and active groups in the city of Pittsburgh and the surrounding area. And you’re right. We been very clever in knowing you’ve got to have strength in the community, you’ve got to affiliate with not only labor but the faith community, the environmental—there as so many different groups that see things the way the we do, and we’ve got to bring them all together. And that also means that we’ve got to back them up. It may not be your issue right today, but when the faith community needs us, the environmental community needs us, the labor community…We’ve all got to be there for each other. That builds solidarity. That builds our strength.

[Rick Smith]: You know, I got back to—my grandmother was a member of UFCW local 880 in Cleveland for years and years. She retired in 1985. In 1985 she was making $8 and hour, with six weeks vacation, full-health care, full-dental, the whole nine yards. Sick says…you know, all of that.

[Tony Helfer]: Right.

[Rick Smith]: Walmart, today, doesn’t pay much more than $8/hour some twenty-six years later.

[Tony Helfer]: That was our problem down here with the Kroger Company. We used to have a whole bunch of independent stores and they were all unionized. This whole area that I actually live in, the Ohio Valley, union stores everywhere. Walmart comes into this town, we now have six Supercenters surrounding our twelve unionized Kroger stores and they literally killed off the independent market. All the little stores that were paying ten, twelve, fifteen dollars an hour and had health care and a pension—they’re gone. And they’ve been replaced by Walmart. And there’s no…the people can’t even afford health care, there is no pension plan, and if they don’t like you, they just roll you out and get the next one in. It’s pathetic what’s going on and they’re just eating us away. If we don’t pull these people up—and we’ve got to figure this out—they are going to pull us down. That’s all there is to it.

[Rick Smith]: Absolutely. And the reason I bring it up is…you brought up “right to work” a minute ago. The reason that my grandmother made that kind of living back 26 years ago that they’re not making today is because the industry had a floor underneath it. Once we pull that rug out from underneath workers, look where it takes us. And if we make this a “right to work” state…

[Tony Helfer]: …Yeah, absolutely. The retail industry has really been beat up by the Walmart Supercenters, they’ve just been a cancer to us. The UFCW has had many programs trying to organize, the SEIU [Service Employees International Union] has helped us…We’re not giving up on Walmart, but this is an animal…I mean they are just so vehemently anti-union. They open up a store and the first thing they do is educate these people to hate us, give them all types of false information, lies and they just scare people—like everyone of us is a union thug, which is phenomenal.

Until we get into the people’s psyche and let them see what’s really happening here…maybe one day they’ll wake up, but it’s going to take a long hard push and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.

[Rick Smith]: Which is why I brought you on to talk about Kroger. These are people who are now going to have a contract and it’s going to be a reasonable wage, they’re going to have health care…it pulls people up and gives them not only respect, but the ability to lead their lives without having to go to Uncle Sam to ask for food stamps or ask for heating assistance or any of the other social programs that come with working at Walmart.

[Tony Helfer]: Living wage jobs support our communities. If my members can have a living wage, they’re able to buy a few extra things, they’re able to go to the other stores and purchase things. They’ve got money that builds the community, which builds other jobs.

You know, you just can’t keep this race to the bottom, it’s got to stop at some point in time. But it seems that labor is the only one that’s pushing back on this. And the lift is heavy, but we’ve just got to be determined and keep pushing back because out communities are worth it. It’s only right in this country that if you have a job, you shouldn’t have to turn and get food stamps, you shouldn’t have to turn around and get assistance for your child, for health care…it’s ridiculous what’s going on.

And Kroger is no saint, I’ll tell you that. I mean, we have to fight and claw for everything we can get out of them and their all the time using a comparison with the Walmart company. I keep wanting to think in the back of my mind, “what? Are you trying to be like them?” But, we were able to work this around pretty well, I think we’re going to be able to survive here a little bit longer, but the company has got to be aggressive against Walmart because they’re constantly nipping at their heels and trying to take the business away from them.

[Rick Smith]: Well, congratulations. I hope everything goes well. I would love to have you back as this PLCB fight heats up and the attacks continue…I would love to have you back.

[Tony Helfer]: I appreciate it, Rick and I’ll be available any time you need me.

[Rick Smith]: Outstanding. Tony Helfer, President of UFCW local 23. Again, congratulations.



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About Editor, Raging Chicken Press 483 Articles
Kevin Mahoney is the Founder and Editor Zero of Raging Chicken Press. When he's not rabble-rousing on Raging Chicken, he's teaching rhetoric and writing at Kutztown University.

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