As public employees, we aren’t the only workers seeing our pay, benefits and careers under attack. The cashiers, meat cutters, and clerks at union supermarkets are in the same fight.
“A service-sector job with benefits – the only place you can get those is in a union grocery store,” says Don Seaquist, president of UFCW Local 1189. His local represents grocery workers in the East Metro, Arrowhead, and Iron Range.
The problem is that big, nonunion chains are gobbling up more of people’s grocery money. The list of nonunion chains includes not only Target, Wal-Mart and Coburn’s, but trendy stores such as Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. Their growth makes it harder for union supermarkets to compete while still treating their workers well.
Workers in the East Metro, for example, recently survived a contentious round of negotiations in which they had to fight off concessionary proposals loaded with takebacks on wages, job security and retirement contributions.
Ten years ago, union grocers had a 90 percent market share in the Metro. Especially because Target and Wal-Mart have expanded their grocery selections, the union grocers’ share is down to about 70 percent today, Seaquist says.
Skimping in the benefits aisle
The biggest advantage of working in a union grocer, Seaquist says, is that “you can make a career.” Union grocery contracts provide a guaranteed wage scale, affordable health insurance, paid vacation, sick pay, and a defined-benefit pension. All those are available for full-timers and part-timers.
Conditions are far different at nonunion stores. “We’ve actually had people come from Sam’s Club into our meat department, and their pay doubles,” says Dan Hudyma, a Local 1189 rep in Duluth. “But the benefit structure is definitely the glaring difference: Holiday pay, vacation, time and a half, a grievance procedure, a real retirement plan – things they didn’t think about till they had union job.”
Workers at union stores are also guaranteed a minimum number of work hours. “In a nonunion store, there may be a week they just don’t schedule you,” Seaquist says. “Or they schedule you four hours a week – that’s how they get rid of people.”
Shopping options are plentiful
For AFSCME members who want to support union grocers, there are plenty of opportunities in many parts of the state. In the Metro, union stores include Byerly’s, Cub, Kowalski’s, Lunds and Rainbow. In Northern Minnesota, about two-thirds of Super One stores have union contracts. Some smaller stores and neighborhood markets also have contracts.
“By shopping union, you are supporting your community,” Seaquist says. “Good jobs equal strong communities. It’s that simple.”
Find a union grocer: The United Food and Commercial Workers Union has released a smartphone app that will help you locate a union grocery store anywhere in the U.S. or Canada. The app is available for iPhone or Droid.