If the labor movement is dying, it's not because of Eric Grumbrecht, 42, an Acme butcher from Warminster. He would say it's the fault of his union, the United Food and Commercial Workers.
"They are the laziest organizers on the planet," he said. "I've never seen anyone in the UFCW organize squat."
So Grumbrecht decided to start his own union to organize butchers, bakers and deli workers at Genuardi's, a division of Safeway Inc.
That sets up this $21.27-an-hour butcher in a fight with a corporate giant that books $40.2 billion in annual revenue, and a union with 1.3 million members nationwide and a $230 million budget.
Think of Grumbrecht as a labor entrepreneur. He has the heart and hustle, he says, found in those who start the kinds of organizations that challenge their worn-out predecessors.
Grumbrecht has his work cut out for him, and UFCW officials say he is a novice, ill-equipped for the task.
Here's what's not at issue:
Acme butchers, represented by UFCW, earn more money and have better benefits than nonunion butchers at Genuardi's.
And organizing workers into a union is a challenge.
The right-to-work folks say unions do not succeed, because laws protect workers the way unions once did, because humanely managed companies do not need unions, and because workers do not want to pay dues to corrupt unions.
Unions do not succeed, labor leaders say, because companies fight back tough, firing ringleaders even though it is illegal, and because laws that are supposed to protect workers are barely enforced.
No wonder, both say, that union membership is down.
"I hear a lot of stories about how labor is on the decline, but I have 800 cards of people who want to join a union," said Grumbrecht, a black-leather-jacketed biker who describes himself as "the bald . . . guy on the Harley who gets chased out of stores."
To seek an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board, a petitioning union needs to have cards signed by one-third of a work unit. Another union can join in if it can add one card from one worker in the unit.
About 30 to 50 independent unions go through this process a year, estimates Carol Lambiase, an international representative for the Pittsburgh-based United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, the largest independent union not affiliated with a labor federation such as the AFL-CIO. The UE serves as a clearinghouse for independent unions.
In one month, Grumbrecht and his fledgling union have filed petitions to represent butchers, bakers, and seafood and deli workers at Genuardi's stores in North Wales, Warrington and Doylestown - about 85 total. An election for the North Wales store is set for Oct. 19.
"This issue has come up before. We've been lucky that our employees have not felt the need for a third party," said Maryanne Crager, Genuardi director of public affairs.
After Grumbrecht started meeting with workers, Genuardi's butchers got an across-the-board raise of $1-plus an hour to $19.50. Was it to stave off the union, as Grumbrecht contends, or simply an annual raise, which is Genuardi's stance?
It is not unusual for companies to raise wages in response to a union-organizing drive, and it is also not unusual for companies to give annual increases - Genuardi's says merit raises are given every six months.
Annual butchers' raises for 2006 and 2005 were 20 cents an hour each year, according to one employee who checked pay stubs.
When Grumbrecht filed to organize the North Wales store Sept. 10, UFCW Local 1776, in nearby Plymouth Township, joined in.
Piggybacking on his hustle, Grumbrecht said.
Not at all, says president Wendell Young 4th, whose 19,461-member local has been trying - unsuccessfully - to organize Genuardi's workers for almost a quarter-century.
"We'd rather be the tortoise that actually gets something for our workers," Young said.
Given the might of Genuardi's parent, Safeway, butchers and bakers who want a union are going to need the kind of experienced help a large local like 1776 can provide, Young said.
"He has no resources," Young said of Grumbrecht. "If the workers get intimidated, if there are needs, he doesn't have one penny to help them. He has no ability to help them get jobs at other stores."
"He put those people right in the crosshairs."
Four years ago, Safeway, a 1,740-store chain based in California with an 80 percent unionized workforce, was one of three supermarkets that together locked out 70,000 California supermarket workers in a five-month strike.
To say there is bad blood here is to put it mildly. Young does not have much nice to say about Grumbrecht, and Grumbrecht's descriptions of Young are unprintable.
Young says Grumbrecht may be angling for a union leadership job - a charge Grumbrecht dismisses with a hoot. ("It's very tempting to take a big-money job, but if I were really looking for a job, I've committed to suicide," he said. "After this, I'm gone. I'm going to cut meat. That's what I do.")
Grumbrecht said it simply bothered him that his butcher friends at Genuardi's made less money than he did, even though they cut meat just as well.
Now on disability leave from his job at Acme, Grumbrecht is a regular rank-and-file member of UFCW Local 152, of Hammonton, N.J., which until recently represented butchers on both sides of the river. Under a recent reshuffling of UFCW locals, butchers in newly organized UFCW stores in Pennsylvania will be represented by Local 1776.
Grumbrecht said when he first began to organize Genuardi's workers in the summer of 2006, he hoped to start a new UFCW local for all store employees. Later, he and his Genuardi's organizing team split off and set up a separate union, because, he said, Genuardi's workers told him they wanted their own local and did not want to be part of 1776.
The union's too big to pay attention to their issues, said one Genuardi's butcher, who did not want to be named because of his job situation.
Given labor history, it is no surprise that butchers are leading the fray, said history professor Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California in Santa Barbara.
"The butchers were the first workers in the food-processing world to unionize," he said. "They are skilled. They have a certain leverage because you have to have the meat fresh. They are crucial. They are one of the profit centers in the supermarket."
It is also not surprising, he said, that the UFCW wants to pick up this organizing drive.
"If there's a bunch of workers who want to be union - there will be all sorts of unions circling around," Lichtenstein said. "They are competing. 'We're more militant.' 'We're more stable.' 'We've got the best research.' "
In the end, he said, most independent unions affiliate with larger unions because they have resources for modern organizing - researchers, publicists, lawyers.
Grumbrecht can definitely see the advantage of it.
"I'm one man with a budget of, I guess you'd say, zero," Grumbrecht said, sitting on his patio with a couple of Genuardi's butchers. But, he says, workers do have power.
The pressure is mounting. Grumbrecht's back up to three cigarette packs a day, chewing Rolaids like candy. He holds workers' hopes in his hands. The responsibility "literally makes me sick.
"My problem is my ignorance," he said. "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."