EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ–Linda Wahler has been a member of the UFCW union since 1986, and worked at the local PathMark as a cake decorator until 5 months ago.
Then she was transferred to the A&P in Holmdel where, the company told her, they needed help in the deli and meat department, an area she also had experience in.
But both stores will close soon, perhaps for the last time. The East Brunswick Pathmark is slated to shut down September 18, while the A&P in Holmdel will close the day after, on September 19.
“I’m out a job,” Wahler told NBToday. She says she called the union and they did nothing for her.
“They directed us to unemployment.”
Wahler, who currently works at Walmart, says she wonders why the full-time employees couldn’t get transferred to one of the stores that will remain open.
Still, supermarket workers are among the most likely to be unionized in New Jersey, and UFCW representatives say they are working hard to get as many stores sold to competitors as possible, and keep their members informed about changes that will affect them.
John T. Niccollai is the president of the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) Local 464A, which includes workers for Pathmark, Key Foods, Stop & Shop, and Shop Rite stores.
His union represents 7,200 workers employed at major grocery chains in New York and New Jersey, including A&P. Niccollai takes advantage of the internet to keep members up-to-date on developments in the A&P/Pathmark bankruptcy. He informed his members August 8 that A&P issued WARN Act (Work Adjustment and Retraining) notices.
"[This is] a federally required form that must be given to the members in the union advising them that in 90 days all of the stores will be closing."
“We know from the WARN Notices that all stores are scheduled to close, and that causes us no surprise. However, to those members in unsold stores, be aware we are exploring all avenues to get more stores sold every minute of every day," wrote Niccolai.
"We are equipped to deliver the best contract possible. We know getting everything we need from these negotiations with our new Employers is a long shot, but we’re betting on our Team."
As we reported, A&P, formally known as The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection July 19 with the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York.
Niccolai says that the goal is to get stores sold and find employers to make jobs in the industry better.
“We are kind of fighting a war on two fronts at the same time," said Niccolai, who added the union is part of the bankruptcy court battle.
“One is in bankruptcy court, to preserve as much as we can for our people in the contract commitments that were made to them by A&P. The second thing is we need to get out there and get as many stores sold as we possibly can,” Niccolai told NBT.
“Simultaneously we’re sitting with employers who will be buying a portion of the stores and we are seeking to negotiate a contract with them,” Niccolai said.
“We are meeting with Acme, Stop & Shop, and Key Foods,” Niccolai said, adding that the union works with a negotiating committee which is made up of an attorney and some of the store owners.
He explained that several meetings have already taken place with Stop & Shop, Key Foods, and Acme.
"And we’ve already had meetings with them prior to these last round of meetings," added Niccolai.
“There was a meeting [August 9] with Key Foods and there is a meeting [August 14] with Key Foods," Niccolai said, "and they’ve expressed some interest in some stores here in NJ and NY."
The Key Foods chain is looking to tackle the urban market in Central New Jersey with a downtown New Brunswick location set to open on August 21, replacing the failed FreshGrocer market that closed in May 2014.
Key Foods is apparently interested in buying two A&P-owned stores in New Jersey: the "Food Basics" locations in Paterson and Glen Rock.
Meanwhile, the union is battling A&P over relief from collective bargaining agreements that the grocer is seeking.
“A&P and its unions have been given until Wednesday afternoon [August 19] to resolve disagreements over severance pay and the rights of senior workers to ‘bump' those with less seniority as stores are shuttered,” according to a report from NorthJersey.com.
“The 156-year-old grocer asked Judge Robert Drain in White Plains, N.Y., for relief from both severance pay and seniority rights provisions in collective bargaining agreements, arguing that the relief was necessary to facilitate the sale of some of its stores and appease creditors as it winds down operations,” reads the report.
After hearing about two hours of testimony from union and company representatives on August 17, Drain suggested that the litigants take more time to try to work out the differences.
“Please sharpen your pencils and see if you can reach an agreement. There is a lot of talent here on both sides so I think you can do that,” the report quotes Drain as saying from the bench.
“While bankruptcy law favors Companies like A&P, we are going to fight hard in negotiations and in Court to protect our members and our contracts,” wrote Niccolai in one of his many updates to members.
“Your Local Union will be filing strong objections to this motion and opposing it in Court because we find it to be totally unfair," Niccolai wrote. "You are the heart and soul of these stores and you have sacrificed more than enough already to help bail out this irresponsible Company."
WARN Act protections are positive, afforded to all, and are do not pose a problem for potential store sales, Nicollai assured members via the website, ufcw464a.org, pointing out that the procedure would not “interfere with the sale to Albertson’s, Stop & Shop or any prospective buyers.”
A&P has requested that the judge authorizes changes to the union's Collective Bargaining Agreements including: terminating all bumping provisions and a request that workers severance in stores that are closing be paid up front, but not exceed 25% of the amount due as per union contract.
But on August 12 the union began circulating a petition to members asking Drain to block A&P's request for an order regarding the union contracts.
"We will fight tirelessly to make it very clear to A&P and the Bankruptcy Judge that A&P should honor its responsibilities to you and your families," stated Niccolai. "Part of that fight includes a Petition being circulated in the stores, which will be presented to Judge Drain for Monday’s [August 17] hearing."
In his end of the week update on Friday, Niccollai told members that the new employers know the union's “greatest strength is the solidarity of our membership.”
“Local 464A clearly hears the demands of the membership, and we recognize that we have suffered enough from A&P/Pathmark and the last round of decisions from the Bankruptcy Court. We certainly don’t want more economic hurt from our new Employers."
A&P declined to comment on this story, while Key Foods did not respond to request for comment.