In the latest row over protest symbols in the workplace, employees at Seattle-area QFC and Fred Meyer stores say that a ban on “Black Lives Matter” buttons violates federal labor law and their union contract.
“I think they’re afraid they’ll lose money” by offending some customers, said Motoko Kusanagi, who works at the QFC in Seattle’s University Village, where she says the store’s director has been “pulling people aside individually and asking them to take the pin off.”
On Tuesday, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21 filed an unfair labor charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NRLB) against QFC and Fred Meyer, both owned by supermarket giant Kroger, over the button ban.
“It’s not a white thing, it’s not a black thing — it’s a people thing,” said Sam Dancy, a union shop steward and a supervisor at Westwood Village QFC in Southwest Seattle, who is Black. “It’s a human right — and it is our right to wear these buttons.”
The union, which represents around 13,000 workers in Puget Sound-area Fred Meyer and QFC stores, distributed the buttons in August.
Officials at the Westwood Village and University Village stores declined to comment on the buttons or store policy. Tiffany Sanders, a QFC spokesperson in Bellevue, also declined to comment on the NLRB complaint or the specifics of the union’s grievance.
But Sanders said QFC offered wristbands as an alternative for employees who “have expressed a desire to stand together with the Black community and show their support through their clothing, facial coverings and accessories.” One wristband bears the words, “Standing Together,” and reflects the company’s “commitment to Standing Together with our Black associates, customers and communities against racism in all forms,” Sanders said.
Dancy dismissed the wristbands as a “backhanded slap” to employees.
“They’re not standing together with us,” he said. “If were, they would allow us to wear these pins.”
Kusanagi said employees had largely ignored the wristbands. “There’s a huge pile of them in the break room.”
Union officials said that when unfair labor charges are filed, the NRLB typically gathers evidence from union members and employers and then determines whether violations have occurred. The process generally takes one to two months.
The dispute over BLM symbols follows months of protests over police violence against Black people — as well as many efforts by corporations to accommodate employee participation and support for the BLM movement.
In June, Seattle-based Starbucks came under heavy criticism after banning BLM symbols at work and then offering its own, tamer employee t-shirt.
An internal Starbucks memo expressed concerns that the BLM motto might be exploited by “agitators” to “amplify divisiveness,” according to a Buzzfeed News report. The memo also noted Starbucks workers “are not permitted to wear buttons or pins that advocate a political, religious or personal issue.” Critics said the stance was hypocritical, given that Starbucks allows employees to wear symbols of gay pride.
“The retail climate and the social climate is so precarious these days,” said retail analyst Jeff Green, a partner at Hoffman Strategy Group. “Retailers, especially those in the brick-and-mortar space, cannot afford to alienate anyone as the trend toward greater online shopping ramps up. However, some employees believe they should have the right to covertly protest social injustices in these trying times. And both sides feel justified.”
Kroger is now at the center of several battles over political or social symbolism.
Last week, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the company for allegedly firing two employees in Arkansas for refusing to wear store uniforms that featured a rainbow symbol, according to media reports.
The company is also being criticized for not restoring “hero” pay bonuses that workers were receiving earlier in the pandemic but ended May 23. Following criticism for ending the bonuses, the company reportedly then offered onetime “Thank You Pay” bonuses of as much as $400, in two installments, which ended June 18.
But workers like Kusanagi say the health risks facing front-line grocery workers remain signficant. “If anything, it has gotten worse, because we have very little power over our customers who wear no masks,” Kusanagi said. “They will just come in and demand that they get their stuff.”
Those risks are all the more galling, adds Dancy, given that the grocery chain is doing well financially despite the pandemic. “They’re still making money every single day,” he said.
Kroger spokesperson Kelli McGannon noted that company has invested heavily in safety measures and that the company’s “total COVID-19 incident rate continues to track meaningfully below the rate in the surrounding communities where we operate.”
This article has been updated to include information about Kroger’s “Standing Together” wristbands and in-store safety measures.