Workers and Students Force Rite Aid to Face its Wrongs

Workers and Students Force Rite Aid to Face its Wrongs

by Casey Sweeney, Cornell Students Against Sweatshops and Regional Organizer, United Students Against Sweatshops

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In my first week as a USAS Summer Intern, rather than fetching coffee for my supervisor or running off a zillion copies, I instead confronted the CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation and called him out on his company’s anti-worker practices.  This may seem unlike most of the other DC internships you might see blogs about, but it’s just another day at the office for USAS!

But  let me take a step back and explain what brought our delegation to Harrisburg, PA for the Rite Aid annual shareholder’s meeting–throughout this school year, students from schools across the country, from Seattle to Atlanta, have taken action at Rite Aid stores in solidarity with workers trying to negotiate fair contracts with the company.  Workers in distribution centers and stores, represented by a number of different unions, are all fighting for the same things–safe working conditions, fair health care costs, and a decent living.  Unfortunately, Rite Aid has taken a stance against workers and has refused to bargain in good faith throughout its supply chain.  From trying to overcharge its workers on healthcare by over 28 times, to forcing its warehouse employees to work in conditions that exceed 100 degrees without air conditions, to intimidimating and firing union supporters, this company aggressively pushes to keep workers at the bottom while Rite Aid top executives fly high in private corporate jets.

Workers reached out to USAS for student support in their coalition, and last summer, we decided to launch our first Rapid Response Solidarity Campaign. We leafleted outside of Rite Aid stores from Boston to Los Angeles on strategic days, including Halloween, where we exposed Rite Aid’s House of Horrors working conditions.  Across our network, students participated in online actions, calling Rite Aid out on its Facebook Fan Page, asking why they would treat their workers this way.  On April Fool’s Day in Ithaca, NY, Cornell Students Against Sweatshops (CSAS) did a flyering-tour, going to all three local Rite Aid stores to speak with customers and store managers about the company’s attacks on workers.

Finally in May, we celebrated our first victory!  The Rite Aid union members of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 26 won a fair contract for 500 workers at a Rite Aid distribution center in Lancaster, CA! This came after over five years of fighting the company’s anti-union tactics against worker organizing and refusing to bargain in good faith a first-contract for over two years after the union was recognized.

But the fight isn’t over. Rite Aid has forced members of UFCW Local 880 from six Rite Aid stores in Ohio onto the picket line for more than 3 months.  These workers have been on strike, bearing the cold of a late winter and now the summer heat, because the workers believe the company has violated labor law in negotiations with the union and has given them no other option.

Before the shareholder’s meeting, Rite Aid leaders attended the Rite Aid Workers’ Summit. Representatives from the 1199 SEIU, ILWU, RWDSU, UFCW Local 21, UFCW Local 880, UFCW Local 1360, UFCW Local 1776, and the UFCW International, Change to Win, and the AFL-CIO were all there.  As the only student in the room, and after mobilizing students on my campus and in my region to participate in Rite Aid store actions, I was so excited to participate in real strategy discussions with union organizers and campaign strategists that would affect thousands of Rite Aid workers across the country, and to see different unions come together as a strategic coalition, united, demanding respect for workers and our communities.

The best part of the day was getting to speak with three of the incredible women currently on strike–Elsa, Christina, and Gina–members of UFCW Local 880.  Gina, a single-mom and 20-year Rite Aid veteran, says she is striking because she needs affordable medical to be able to care for her children.  They are not asking for more money or wage increases–she’s fighting for affordable health insurance so she can try to make ends meet.  Elsa, after 19-years with Rite Aid, is getting older and has a husband to care for, and she is coming to a point in her life where she needs affordable medical care.  Christina, who has worked at Rite Aid for 12 years, says she is on strke because in negotiations, management is trying to make healthcare so expensive that nobody will be able to afford it, and as a mother, she can’t survive that way.

Hearing their stories reminded me of my visit with garment workers I met at the Alta Gracia factory in the Dominican Republic. These women, also single mothers, organized and fought against sweatshops conditions, demanding livable wages and health care to provide for their families, too.  I will continue to stand alongside all of these amazing women activists as we fight back against corporate greed in all its forms–from sweatshops in the Caribbean, to the pharmacy on the street corner.

Check out the video of USAS’s solidarity with Rite Aid workers, featuring Gina, Elsa, and Christina from UFCW Local 880.

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