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In his latest telephonic town hall on July 8, President Jim McLaughlin called on Local 99 members to follow the advice of public health experts while confronting the accelerating COVID-19 pandemic. He also provided updates on organizing opportunities for the union and described preparations for upcoming contract negotiations with supermarket employers.

Invitations to the town hall were sent to all 24,000 members of the local union in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

‘This disease is personal’

“Whether in the grocery stores, the airport, the meat packing plants, our health care facilities or our food processing plants, our members continue to work in the face of a growing pandemic,” President McLaughlin said.

“To date, nearly 2,000 Local 99 members have contracted COVID-19 and, sadly, three of them have passed,” he continued.

The three deceased members include a Safeway employee in Page, a JBS employee in Tolleson, and a member who worked at Copper Queen Hospital.

“This disease is personal for all of us,” McLaughlin said. “This is why we continue to focus our efforts on keeping you safe and healthy at work and at home.”

“I have been visiting stores over past couple of weeks — wearing a mask, of course, and maintaining the appropriate distance — to speak with Local 99 members and learn about their thoughts and experiences on the front lines,” he said. “The feedback we’ve been getting from the members about these town halls have been overwhelmingly positive.

“We continue to be inspired by your remarkable bravery during this emergency. The great majority of our members are responding as true professionals in the critical industries we serve, putting theit personal health and safety on the line so that others can take care of themselves and their families.

“For that and more, you have our profound respect and appreciation,” he said.

‘Maintain vigilance’

Noting that the nation is about five months into the pandemic crisis, President McLaughlin said the union’s major task these days is “to persuade everyone — employers, the public and frankly even some of our own members — to maintain their vigilance and not let their guard down.”

He said Local 99 has reached out to employers to obtain explanations why they have been pulling back from appreciation pay and other commitments to provide protective equipment, allow breaks for cleaning, enforce social distancing policies and designate special shopping hours for seniors, among other safety measures.

“Too often, stores are failing to enforce their own policies or the latest executive orders regarding wearing masks,” McLaughlin said. “We need to address this.”

‘Wear a mask, save lives’

Addressing the escalating public debate about confronting the pandemic, he said: “Unfortunately, simple acts of caution and decency like wearing masks have been politicized, branding people as members of one political camp or another. We must continue to speak out as a union and as individuals. The message is, ‘Wear a mask, save lives.’ It’s that simple.”

“It’s hard to understand why but even some of our co-workers, have succumbed to this dangerous political environment and are deliberately NOT wearing masks or honoring social distancing,” McLaughlin added.

“This is not a matter of politics or wild conspiracies that governments are trying to control people’s minds. It is a scientific fact that wearing masks help protect people against a serious and even fatal disease. Please wear masks and ask your co-workers and customers to wear them.”

McLaughlin said Local 99 continues to promote science-based understanding of COVID-19 and measures to control it as recommended by the experts at the CDC. Updates on these recommendations are featured on the union’s website, ufcw99.com.

Union provides PPE, resources

Local 99 also has been providing thousands of masks, bandanas and sanitizer bottles to stores, plants, offices and other work sites, he said. He advised members to contact their union representatives if they need anything and “we’ll do our best to get you what you need, if its still in stock.”

“We have a wealth of information on our website,” he said. “There you will find current information from reliable sources on how to protect yourself, your loved ones and others you encounter from the virus that causes COVID-19.

“You will also find links to resources provided by our union through telemedicine and HMC. These include help in issues relating to stress, substance abuse, family finances and other issues that are made even worse by this crisis.

“Just as important, we have access to each other. We need each other for support and strength.”

Opportunity for growth

“In the history of unions, times of adversity can also be times of opportunity to build our strength,” McLaughlin continued.

“This is a good time to talk to non-union workers, both in our own workplaces and in other places not covered by a union contract.

“Remind them how employers who decided by themselves to provide ‘hero pay’ were free to stop when it suited them. But when you have wage rates, benefits and working conditions negotiated into a union contract, the employers are legally required to keep providing them. The contract guarantees these things.”

McLaughlin asked members who have friends or family at non-union stores to “call the office or let your union rep know.”

“This is how we can organize more workplaces and grow our membership, so we can increase our bargaining leverage throughout the industry,” he said.

Grocery negotiations on horizon

Speaking of bargaining, McLaughlin said, “We just finished negotiations and ratifying the JBS contracts in Arizona and Utah and our members won significant wage increases.”

“With this in mind, surveys are being sent out via email to all grocery members,” he continued. “We want to know what your concerns and priorities are with regard to contract negotiations with the supermarket employers.”

The current supermarket contracts are scheduled to expire expires at end of October, McLaughlin said. “That’s just a few short months away. We don’t have a. lot of time to waste, so please get your survey answers back to your union.”