Decision Partly Finds For Unions in Labor Suit Against United Natural Foods

On Tuesday, the Western District of Washington issued an order regarding cross motions for summary judgment in United Natural Foods Inc v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 117 et al

According to the order, United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI) is a national wholesale grocery distributor that acquired SuperValu Inc. in October 2018. As part of the acquisition, UNFI became a party to collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) between the defendants International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 117 and Local 313 (Unions). The Unions represent employees at UNFI’s facility in Tacoma, Wash. comprised of four bargaining units: warehouse workers, inventory control workers, warehouse clerks, and drivers.

The opinion states that in February 2019, UNFI announced that it would consolidate its Tacoma, and Portland, Or. facilities into a new distribution center in Centralia, Wash. Further, the opinion explains that the Centralia facility anticipated employing approximately 500 workers, and UNFI “encouraged” employees from the Tacoma facility to apply for those jobs.

However, in March 2019, the Unions filed grievances against UNFI claiming that it violated the CBAs. They said that the CBAs contained provisions regarding transferred employees’ rights in the event that a UNFI facility was moved and that the consolidation of the Tacoma and Portland plants violated those terms. 

The opinion states that UNFI denied the grievances, and the parties agreed to arbitrate the dispute. In August 2019, the arbitrator ruled in favor of the Unions holding that the CBAs required UNFI to allow the employees at the Tacoma facility to transfer to Centralia under the same terms and conditions previously enjoyed and to reinstate and make whole employees laid off from the Tacoma facility.

Several months later, UNFI asked the court to vacate the arbitrator’s award. The Unions counterclaimed under the Labor Management Relations Act, seeking to enforce the award and obtain relief from UNFI’s alleged breach of the CBAs. 

Further, UNFI filed an unfair labor practices charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) resulting in the NLRB issuing a complaint against the Unions for not representing a majority of the employees at the Centralia facility. However, in June 2021, the NLRB dropped the complaint stating that it “did not wish to continue the prosecution.”

Following the NLRB decision, UNFI filed a motion for summary judgment requesting that the award be vacated because the Unions violated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) by not representing a majority of the Centralia facility employees. The Unions cross-moved for summary judgment, asking the court to enforce the arbitrator’s award and declare that UNFI breached the CBAs by failing to abide by the award. 

In this week’s order, the court held that the arbitrator did not exceed his authority, and enforcement of the award did not violate the NLRA, thus denying UNFI’s motion for summary judgment. Additionally, the court granted the Unions’ motion to confirm the award, but denied it in regards to UNFI’s breach of the CBAs for challenging the award as unenforceable. 

UNFI is represented by Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP and Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, and the Unions are represented by Barnard Iglitzin & Lavitt LLP.