For the men and women of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 876, times could be better. Statewide, unions are struggling to survive as they watch membership tumble and wages stall.
The union, based in Madison Heights, represents more than 17,000 grocery store employees, mostly at Kroger stores here in Michigan: workers like Timothy Murphy, who’s been a cashier for the last three years. Today, he makes $11.80 an hour.
“A lot of our people are poor, they take the bus to work and back home again,” Murphy said. “So many are disappointed that the hourly wage increasesare so small.”
Their contract was negotiated by Roger Robinson. Until last summer, he was the longtime president of Local 876.
When he was named president in 2006, Robinson made just over $158,000. But unlike his members, his salary climbed quickly.
By 2009, he pulled in almost $214,000. By 2013, he collected more than $250,000 . Just two years after that, Robinson made more than $309,000.
By comparison, the head of the UAW—with more than 24 times the members—made about half what Robinson took in. Even the head of the UFCW’s international union, with more than 1.2 million members, made thousands less than Robinson.
But seeing his pay double in about a decade wasn’t enough. Last June, Robinson decided to retire. On his way out the door, he left with a boatload of money: more than $$650,000 paid out by UFCW 876.
Ken Paff is a founder of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a reform movement that’s fought to reign-in salaries of union officials.
“They should be well-paid, but not like corporate CEOs,” Paff said. “I mean that’s not what the labor union is about…the union movement can’t afford to have top officials using the union to advance themselves and not the members.”
Robinson said he’s spent decades at the union and deserved his big payout. While he’s been president, union assets have risen more than 50%, but as stores have closed, membership has fallen by 10%.
“I think it’s outrageous,” said a Kroger employee who asked we not identify her. “To walk away with that much money. How nice, I want that job.”
Robinson didn’t sign his own check. It had to be approved by the union’s executive board. That included its new president, Dan Pedersen. He declined an on-camera interview so when we caught up with him as he pulled into his driveway last week, he pulled right back out and sped away.
Hours later came a statement, calling Robinson’s big payout part of a longstanding separation agreement that—once paid out—was immediately ended for all future presidents.
Timothy Murphy can’t imagine what all money would even look like. Next year, he’s due for a raise: another 30 cents an hour.
“The higher echelon always gets the biggest chunk of change,” Murphy said, “and the employees are left to fend with what’s left."