Western Washington Fred Meyer and QFC stores violated federal labor law last fall when they barred employees from wearing Black Lives Matter buttons at work, according to the National Labor Relations Board.
Last week’s finding by the NLRB comes just over a year after Kroger, parent company of Fred Meyer and QFC, sparked a local controversy by ordering workers at Puget Sound-area stores not to wear BLM buttons to protest police violence against Black people.
The buttons had been provided by the workers union, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 21, which then filed unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB.
UFCW claimed the button ban violated federal law because it blocked workers from taking collective action and hadn’t been negotiated in advance.
Last week, the NRLB’s Northwest regional office in Seattle informed UFCW and the grocery stores that it had “found merit to at least one charge” filed by the UFCW, NLRB spokesperson Kayla Blado confirmed Monday. She did not give details.
The NLRB will now try to negotiate a settlement between the union and Kroger that might involve changing company policy or other remedies. If a settlement isn’t reached, the NLRB can issue a formal complaint that might result in a trial.
“It’s a step in the right direction for a company that puts as one of its core values diversity and inclusion,” said Motoko Kusanagi, a checker at the QFC in Seattle’s University Village, where employees said they were pressured by store managers to take off the BLM button last September. “We should live the values we preach.”
“We look forward to reviewing the proposed settlement agreement,” a Kroger spokesperson said in a statement Friday. “Our company is unequivocal in standing with our black associates, deeply listening and taking action to advance more diverse, inclusive and equitable communities.”
The battle over BLM buttons began last summer after some QFC and Fred Meyer employees wore masks and other items with the BLM slogan to protest racism following the May 25 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, union officials said.
QFC and Fred Meyer officials banned the logo and offered employees wristbands with the logo, “Standing Together,” as an alternative, which Kusanagi said many employees ignored.
UFCW 21 then provided employees with buttons bearing both the BLM logo and “UFCW 21,” which store officials also banned. In one case, the union said, a Fred Meyer employee was sent home without pay for wearing the BLM button. UFCW 21 represents about 13,000 workers in Puget Sound-area Fred Meyer and QFC stores.
The dispute followed months of protests in the Seattle area against police violence and was one of several involving high-profile corporations seeking to accommodate employee participation and support for the BLM movement.
In cases where the NLRB finds merit in unfair labor practice charges, the agency generally encourages a settlement among the involved parties. Agency staff members draft a settlement to address alleged unfair practices, to which the employer and union can agree. More than 90% of such cases end with a settlement, the agency says.
Kusanagi, who shares a name with a popular Japanese anime character, expressed disappointment the NLRB had taken so long to reach a finding. In the year since Kroger issued the ban, Kusanagi said, many affected workers left the store — some in direct response to the ban; eventually, Kusanagi stopped wearing the button at work. “After a while it just became depressing,” Kusanagi said. “Customers would ask about it and I wouldn’t have a clear answer.”
Despite the long wait, Kusanagi said the NLRB finding sends an important message about Kroger’s efforts to ban employee expression. For Kroger “to step down this hard on people for that — it does need to be seen that that wasn’t okay,” Kusanagi said.