Unionized employees of D.C.-area Shoppers grocery stores are demanding that the chain’s Providence, Rhode Island, parent company communicate with them about impending store closures.

The ownership of Shoppers, which until October was Minnesota-based Supervalu, has been saying for the past two years that it wanted to divest its retail businesses to focus on wholesale. But the pace of those divestitures has quickened under the company’s new owner, United Natural Foods Inc., which bought Supervalu last fall for its wholesale business.

UNFI CEO Steve Spinner said on a March 6 earnings call that he is confident the sale of the Shoppers stores will be complete “in the coming months.

Shoppers employees, meanwhile, have not been kept in the loop about what that could mean for their jobs, according to the union that represents them, United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 400.

Local 400 Vice President Mark Federici wrote to Spinner Thursday looking for information and suggested that UNFI (NYSE: UNFI) may already have lined up buyers for the stores. “Local 400 demands that you provide us with information about these reported store sales immediately,” Federici wrote. “We have learned that the identities of the purchasers have been known.”

A spokesman for UNFI said “there are no immediate plans for any Shoppers stores to close,” though he also reiterated that “UNFI plans to thoughtfully and economically divest its retail operations and the company is making progress on that front.”

There are 36 Shoppers stores in the D.C. and Baltimore areas. Local 400 represents 2,000 employees at the 29 stores in Northern Virginia and the Maryland suburbs. Local 27 in Baltimore represents additional employees at the stores there.

Giant has taken over a few of the Shoppers locations in Northern Virginia and Montgomery County in the past few months, though it’s unclear which entities are taking over the remaining stores or if they plan to employ union workers or not. Locally, Giant, Safeway and Shoppers store employees are unionized, but employees at other grocery stores are not.

In 2017, UFCW renegotiated the Shoppers employees’ contract, which now expires in 2020. It does include provisions for retaining a union workforce if a certain percentage of the stores are sold to the same buyer — and if they reopen within a short time of Shoppers shutting its doors.

“Our members have been the backbone of Shoppers stores far longer than UNFI has had any interest in those stores, and they deserve far more respect than UNFI has shown them in this process,” Federici wrote in the letter to Spinner. “They deserve to know what the future holds.”

The union made its letter public on its website and also emailed it to all 2,000 Local 400 members. The email foreshadowed a potential public campaign.

“In the coming weeks, we expect UNFI to provide us with the information we have requested. If they do not, we will take appropriate action, including actions we will be asking you to participate in, both in your stores and in the communities you serve,” Federici wrote in the email to Shoppers employees.

Source: Washington Business Journal