My name is Nicole Opielowski and I am both a proud member of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 23 and a proud Giant Eagle employee in Braddock Hills, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. With the economy in bad shape, and with retail jobs on the rise in this country, more and more workers in my generation are facing lifelong careers in retail, which means we need to make these jobs work for us. That’s exactly what my Giant Eagle coworkers and I are doing by taking an active role in our union.
I am energized to be part of our union and to contribute to a movement to make our jobs better for ourselves and our coworkers, just like our great grandparents did in the steel mills not so many years ago. However, the company is telling us we can’t talk to each other about union related subjects – not even off the clock or during our breaks – without the threat of being incarcerated. In fact, they arrested one of my coworkers, Debbie, just last week!
Debbie, who has been a Giant Eagle for 36 years, was talking to her coworkers (while they were on break in the cafeteria) at the Waterfront Giant Eagle about trying to bring workers in some of the non-union stores owned by Giant Eagle into our union, so they can enjoy the same opportunities and benefits we do. The manager called the police on her and had her arrested for trespassing and put in jail.
Debbie’s arrest is just the latest attack Giant Eagle has waged in an ongoing smear campaign against our union, a campaign that includes intimidating letters from Giant Eagle’s CEO Dave Shapira to employees and management claiming there are “dangers” in joining our union. As far as I can see, Giant Eagle management is the real source of these dangers – dangers like being arrested and thrown in jail for having a peaceful dialogue with coworkers about better pay, better benefits, and improved working conditions.
This undertaking, pursued by people like me and the every day people in small towns across our region, is not just about shedding light on these kinds of intimidation tactics. Our cause is about ensuring that there will be good jobs for people my age who cannot afford college. It’s not like I can go work in a steel mill. The family-sustaining jobs of the mills are a thing of the past, instead replaced by service industry jobs that pay a fraction of what my grandparents and great grandparents made back then. Jobs like mine are all we have right now.
One of society's best-kept secrets is this: the most power, pay, and prestige go to those with the easiest jobs. But the people being forced to work two jobs to make a living are the heartbeat of our society. They are child-care workers and nursing home workers, janitors and security guards, sales people and stockers. They have the most hazardous jobs, the late-night jobs, the jobs that rarely include benefits.
Unless you are a CEO like Dave Shapira, you don’t have a lot of leverage to demand benefits at your workplace. As an individual, you can’t do much about what hours you work, what health benefits you receive, or how your retirement benefits are structured. Our union gives workers like me that kind of leverage because together we speak with one collective voice, and we have a say in the decisions that affect our jobs. We are stronger when we speak together.
"United we stand," goes the slogan, "divided we fall." Our cause is about little people uniting to take on giants. It's about fighting to keep our nation an egalitarian one, whose people all remain strong, economically as well as physically and mentally. Dave Shapira and Giant Eagle call people like us criminals and have us thrown in jail. I call us the heartbeat of America, working to keep our families fed, our communities stable, and our country just.