Over 75 Years Of Fighting For Members
Our Proud Local 881 History
Local 881 of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union has existed in its present form only since the early 1980s, but the roots of our local’s history paint a picture of activism, progress and concern for its members that stretches back to the Great Depression.
When the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935, it established the right of workers to organize in Unions of their own choice and to bargain collectively with employers. Self-service supermarkets with an average of five to seven employees began opening all over. As self-service grew more acceptable and popular, the staff of some food stores rose to as many as 25, with full-timers supplemented by part-time help. The need for collective bargaining and representation soon became apparent, and Unions assumed the role of a stabilizing force in the food industry.
Another change came in 1947 when the Taft-Hartley Act made both Unions and management accountable to the federal government. That same year, a new independent Labor Union called the Jewel Food Store Employees Union (JFSEU) was established and certified. Later, the Union was renamed the United Retail Workers Union (URW). The membership totals of the Union increased by 4,000 in 1959. The staff at this time was only 12 people strong.
As the Union began to grow, in 1960, a young man named Ron Powell began working at the Jewel Tea Company in DeKalb, Illinois. It was there that he discovered his passion for worker justice. Even though he was working as a manager for the Company, Ron strongly believed in what the Union was fighting for. Ron was so committed he even held Union meetings in his home. He led the first and only recognition strike against the company. After a month of picketing, the Union won a fair contract. When the strike ended, Ron left Jewel and followed his calling to help give a voice on the job to workers by joining the staff as a Union Representative. Over the years, Ron had a tremendous impact on the Union as he moved up through various leadership positions and ultimately served as Local 881 President.
The mid-1960s brought more major changes to the retail food industry and, as a result, the URW was sought out by store employees for representation. Though the 60s were stable years for the Union, the URW continued to strive to achieve more benefits for its members. As the 1970s approached, membership grew to 6,000, staff was expanded, and a non-foods division was created.
In August 1981, the URW affiliated with the United Food and Commercial Workers to become Local 881 UFCW. The numbers 8-8-1 represent our official charter date, August of 1981 as a UFCW Local Union.
In 1983, Ron Powell became President of Local 881. Ron led Local 881 through periods of growth and times of challenge. Ron has been a fierce advocate for Local 881 members and has gone to the mat for them when facing their employers. For example, in 1984, Jewel Foods illegally cut the wages of their workforce, as much as $1.25 an hour! Despite having 40% of the market share at the time, they were nervous about other companies coming into the area. As Jewel often does they overreacted, and wanted the Union to agree to concessions and takeaways. Local 881 flat out refused. Jewel went ahead and unilaterally enacted drastic wage cuts in direct violation of the contract. Local 881 fought back. After a long 18-month battle in federal court, the Union won the judgement and ultimately restored the wage rates and back pay for the affected 15,000 members.
In the late 1980s, several other UFCW Locals from around the state merged into Local 881, including Local 1696 (Springfield), Local 35 (Wood River/Alton), Local 219 (Belleville), Local 229 (Collinsville), Local 304-R (Edwardsville), and Local 1550 (Chicago). By 1989, Local 881 was the largest UFCW Local Union in Illinois, in the United States, and in our International Union.
In 2002, a new threat to our members came after Safeway bought Dominick’s. The new ownership launched a massive campaign with the intent to gut the collective bargaining agreement and restrict workplace rights that had been in place for decades. The 9,000 members of Local 881 and our sister local overwhelmingly voted to reject the regressive contract proposal offered by the company and authorized a strike. The company backed down and resumed bargaining with the UFCW and a fair contract was ultimately achieved.
Fighting for members at the bargaining table, but also in the halls of government became an important priority for Local 881. The Union has never underestimated the importance of legislative and political action, especially supporting candidates who put the interests of working families first and helping to craft legislation that improves the lives of workers or blocks efforts to harm them. Local 881 fights to protect workers and their families by opposing anti-worker legislation and supporting pro-worker bills at the local, state, and national levels. Local 881 also supports political candidates – regardless of party affiliation – who promote the rights of workers and the interests of our members. It’s not the politician’s party that is important, it’s how they will vote on issues Local 881 members are most concerned about!
Over the years, Local 881 has been proud to support and lead coalitions on important initiatives that have lifted the rights of workers across our state, most notably: Increasing the Minimum Wage, Sick Time, Fair Scheduling, Workers’ Rights Amendment, Expanding the Earned Income Credit, and establishing an equitable and professional cannabis industry.
Since 2012, Local 881 has been on the forefront of bringing the Cannabis Industry to Illinois. The Union lobbied for the passage of the Medical Cannabis Pilot Program (HB 1), and then later for the Adult-Use Recreational laws (SB 316/HB 2353). Our goal was to influence the law so that the workers in this emerging industry would have the ability to unionize, have a voice in their workplace, and be protected. Local 881 is proud to have organized and negotiated the first Cannabis contracts in the state and have since added hundreds of cannabis workers to our ranks.
Today, over 34,000 Local 881 members work throughout Northern Illinois (including the metropolitan and suburban Chicago area), Central and Southern Illinois, and Northwest Indiana. Local 881 represents members employed by a wide variety of grocery, retail, food processing, cannabis, service, and professional offices and facilities.
Whether you have been a member for a few months or a few decades, we are proud to be your Union Representative and your voice on the job. Whether it’s a question about your pay rate, your classification, or the contract, we are here to help you and it is a privilege to be at your service! Please contact your Union Representative at 847-294-5064 with any workplace concern.