The Portland connection to Local 555 began in 1936 with the creation of Local 1092, started by seven grocery clerks. They were reacting to the pitiful lot of Portland Area grocery clerks, who worked as long as 72 hours a week for a grand total of about $14.00. They had no job protection, no guaranteed breaks, no paid holidays, and no benefits. Premium pay for Sunday or night work was unheard of. Paid vacations were for other people. These seven clerks decided to try to do something about it. Tom Lenhart was elected President, and Malcom MacCloud, Secretary-Treasurer. It took nearly a year of meetings and sign-ups before the group felt able to apply for a Charter from the Retail Clerks International Association. It was granted on December 28, 1936, and Grocery Clerks Local 1092 was formed. The fight had just begun.
The Teamsters came to the rescue, issuing an ultimatum to the chain grocery stores: “No union recognition, no deliveries.” (Very soon after that the employers formed their own association, Food Employers, Inc., to attempt to deal with the upstart Union.) The new Local began to pick up steam. At a single mass meeting several hundred clerks signed membership cards. In February of 1937 negotiations for a contract began, and within a year, the clerks were engaged in their first strike, lasting from May to September. The final settlement gave them weekly wage increase of $2.50.
The decade of the 1940’s passed swiftly. These were the war years, and a good portion of the membership was away in military service. Women entered the workforce en masse and women grocers became an accepted part of contract language. Two breaks for her in the work day was a part of the industry. Wage, price controls and rationing were the order of the times.
The 1950s unfolded with much activity. The Pharmacists were organized, and for a time the Local was called the Food and Drug Clerks Union. A short and bitter strike occurred in 1952, with medical insurance as one of the primary issues. The cause was lost, though, when a few clerks with company insurance took a small wage increase, and forced a settlement which withheld a medical trust for the entire membership.
However, company-paid medical was a benefit whose time had come. In the 1957 negotiations, an Employer-paid trust for the membership finally became a reality. Also added at this time: a third week of vacation after ten years as well as a company paid sick leave. Also by the mid-50s, Journeyman Clerk’s wages had improved, becoming $1.31 per hour.
Urban explosion into the suburbs was rampant by the 1960’s and the employers made the move along with their customers. Step by step, members gained benefits that helped keep more of their paychecks in their pockets. In fact, their contracts exceeded those of most labor groups. The Portland clerks gained a pension, dental care, and prescription drug benefits.
In the first of what would become many mergers, the grocery units of Local 1121 (Oregon City/West Linn) were merged with Local 1092 on May 1, 1963. The non-food contracts went to the Retail Mercantile Union, Local 1257. 1963 also saw the retirement of George Lightowler, a long time Union Activist, who had served as Secretary-Treasurer of the Local for an extraordinary 23 years. The leadership reins were handed to Gordon Swope, who would eventually serve the Local for eleven years: first as Secretary-Treasurer and later as President.
A major reorganization of the Retail Clerks Locals began in 1968. Local 1565, which represented clerks from Hood River to Bend, was split and merged with 992 of Salem and Portland’s 1092.
The Hood River/The Dalles area went to Local 1092 and the Bend/Redmond units were given to Salem. With this merger, Local 992 ceded representation at the Yamhill County stores to Local 1092. Also taking place in Also in 1968, Astoria/Tillamook’s Local 147 joined with 1092. The membership of the combined locals topped 6000 clerks. The reorganization was completed when Local 201, Eugene/Roseburg, merged with Local 265 of Medford and Local 1257 joined Local 1092.
Under Swope’s leadership, great strides were made in wages, contract language, and benefits. Journeyman hourly wages went from $2.80 in 1966 to $3.92 in 1970. All this, despite President Nixon’s wage and price guidelines of the early 70s, which restricted pay increases while letting inflation run amok.
With the election of 1973 came a new President of 1092, Dan Fortune, a Fred Meyer employee. A long-time Union activist, Fortune defeated Swope at the polls but was ultimately to serve less than a year before he was stricken with cancer and died in office. Walt Derry, who had been Fortune’s Secretary-Treasurer, became the new President. During his term, he moved the Union office from Ankeny Street to Davis Street. This was the fourth home of the Local. The Davis Street building acted as a mini Labor Temple with extra space being rented to six labor-related groups.
The general election campaign of 1976 brought a complete change of leadership. Elected were Mike Hereford as President, Mike Swope as Secretary-Treasurer, four new Union representatives, and six new Executive Board Members. This was the last election for union representatives due to a change in the International Constitution after which all Union Reps were to be hired by the President, subject to the approval of the Executive Board.
The late 70s
More mergers! Local 800, a group of Professional and Health Care Workers, along with the Boot and Shoe Workers Local 366, merged with Local 1092, as did the newly formed Local 1093 (representing Memorial Coliseum workers). The membership now soared to over 7000. The first shop steward program for the local was originated and headed by Grievance Director, Gene Pronovost in 1978.
The summer of 1978 will be known as the year of the Portland Grocery Strike. The members were out for 23 days. The emotionally charged issues were the Employers’ proposal to reduce the health benefits for retirees combined with the issue of hours. Holiday closing for grocery was lost, but time-and-a-half was negotiated for working on that holiday. Portland’s Local 1092 was the last Local on the West Coast to give up holiday closings. Hourly wages for Journeyman Clerks rose to $7.215 per hour; “Cost of Living” contract language was paying off.
Locally in 1979, two important resolutions were passed by the membership which established “coordinated bargaining.”
Nationally, the “Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen” and the “Retail Clerks International” began exploring ways to effectively merge the two unions, recognizing that there were many commonalities shared between their members. The talks continued throughout the 1970’s and culminated with the Merger Agreement of 1979. In June of that year, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union was born.
Local 555 begins to form! Starting in 1983, the executive officers of Meatcutter Locals 143A and 1011 met with their counterparts in the Retail Locals 1092, 303 and 942 to discuss a merger along the lines of the 1979 International Merger.
An agreement was reached and approved by the members of all the Locals. The International approved the merger, and Local 555 came into being. The Executive Board was formed from five members from each of the five merging locals.
5 locals, 5 sets of elected officials, 5 members each on the executive board: Local 555.
Mike Hereford, Local 1092, was selected President. Bob Hogan, Local 143A, became the Secretary Treasurer. An executive committee was formed of the remaining officers (Ken Gabriel, 143A; Joe Osa, 1092; Jim McCormick, 303; Cecil Cardwell, 303; Arliene Theisen, 942; Walt Derry, 942; Keith Jons, 1011, and Craig Marlette, 1011) of the former Locals. Betty Deulen of 143A was Recording Secretary.
The combined staff was too large for the building on Davis Street, and after a careful search, the Local moved into the Crossroads Center Building in Tigard.
This was a busy year, with the Portland contract open and election of officers mandated by the merger agreement. Wages were frozen for the next three years. The election campaign was a tough and bitter struggle which was waged in lunch rooms, parking lots, restaurants and corporate boardrooms. The final count was close, but the membership had decided that they wanted to change to a leadership which promised improved contracts and fiscal responsibility. Ken MacKillop, a union representative from Salem, defeated Mike Hereford for the Presidency. Kathy Morris, a 17-year veteran meat wrapper from Safeway, won a large victory over incumbent Bob Hogan (former president of Local 143A) in a run-off election.
In ’94, another strike occurred in Vancouver and Portland involving Retail Grocery, Meat, and CCK. The primary employer target of the strike was Fred Meyer, and the main issue was seniority and the right for senior employees to secure more hours than junior employees. The strike theme was “Part Time America Won’t Work!” UFCW 555 was not alone in this strike, as the Fred Meyer Teamsters at the warehouse struck Fred Meyer at the same time. Pickets on the Fred Meyer locations were staffed by both UFCW and Teamster members. A newly organized non-food unit at the Coos Bay Fred Meyer location also joined the strike. The very popular strike line daily newsletter “Freddy Front Lines” played an important role in keeping the strikers informed, and the morale high. News media and other labor organizations also wanted the daily newsletter. In fact, it took about 4 hours to fax the newsletter to all that wanted it.
President MacKillop and Secretary-Treasurer Morris retired, and Gene Pronovost was elected Union President and Ed Clay was elected Secretary-Treasurer. When President Pronovost took office he was shocked to learn that the Union was fiscally broke and facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in outstanding unpaid bills. With the support and cooperation of the International Union, an interest free loan was secured. Getting the Local financially healthy was to be a significant hurdle but during the twelve years of the Prononost administration the dues rates were standardized, a political education budget was created, payroll deductions for union dues was approved, and improvements in technology were implemented. The mortgage on the building was paid off, as was the debt to the International.
Gene Pronovost established the first Steward Summit, held to show appreciation for all the stewards’ hard work and to continue an educational program for them. The annual summit has become very popular and continues today (now called the Leadership Conference to be more inclusive of other, non-steward, workplace leaders).
International Union President Doug Dority nominated President Pronovost to serve on the International Executive Board as a Vice President. The International Executive Board serves approximately 1.4 million members. He was confirmed by the Board and became the first International Vice President from Oregon.
President Pronovost led UFCW Local 555, among other labor organizations and other proponents of the measure, to support Ballot Measure 25. A minimum wage bill that sought to raise the minimum wage in Oregon, Ballot Measure 25 also included a provision for an annual cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA). Local 555 successful in affecting passage of 25.
President Pronovost, Secretary-Treasurer Lin Mayes (appointed to replace Ed Clay when he retired in 2005), Recorder Mary Verpoorten, and their slate of 25 Vice Presidents made history as for the first time, all officers were unopposed in their re-election bid. President Pronovost’s re-election to a fourth term was also historic.
Union President Gene Pronovost decided to retire, and both Secretary-Treasurer Jeff McDonald and Union Representative Dan Clay both ran for the open seat. Following months of campaigning, the membership of Local 555 decided to support the campaign for change and elected Dan Clay to be president by a nearly 3-1 margin. Also elected was Clay’s running mate for Secretary-Treasurer, Jeff Anderson, and their entire slate of 25 vice-presidential candidates.