Bernie Hesse was a little surprised to learn that the UFCW Local 1189 union had voted down a contract proposal by 96 percent to 4 percent on Thursday. That seems low to him.
"I don't know what those other 4 percent are thinking," Hesse said. "Maybe they're close to retirement."
The overwhelming vote by unionized grocery store workers in the east metro means the two negotiating teams will have to go back to the table. On one side are major retail grocery chains like Cub, Rainbow, Lunds & Byerlys, and Kowalski's, among others. On the opposite side are some 3,600 employees who keep the lights on and the produce fresh in St. Paul's grocery stores.
Hesse says the nearly unanimous rejection sends a message to those companies. The major sticking points in the contract proposal were over the union-wide healthcare plan — UFCW wants the company to contribute more money to the plan — and wage increases. The grocers offered small raises, but Hesse says they weren't in line with what workers wanted.
"They did put some money on the table — 15 cents here, a quarter there — but we're saying that's not enough," Hesse says.
Part-time grocery employees earn about $15 an hour, while full-time workers have hourly wages that range from $14 to $24.
Hesse says union members don't have any reason to believe the stores they work at are struggling.
"Lunds told us they had a really good year last year," Hesse said. "And, as somebody pointed out to me, Supervalu, which owns Cub Foods, didn't seem to have any problem coming up with $65 million last year to buy all those Rainbow stores. None of the stores are claiming poverty."
Hesse said members will now discuss how to get their message out, and said that could mean a "consumer campaign" or "actions in front of stores." In an allusion to the 5,000 Allina Health nurses set to go on strike next week, Hesse said, "It's good to know the strike is not dead, as a tactic."
A strike would probably be some time in coming, though, and Hesse thinks UFCW can communicate to the companies that there aren't exactly a bunch of unemployed people lining up to take these jobs. According to the most recent jobs report, 68.3 percent of Minnesotans have a job — the highest number in the country.
"It's time for them to become the employers of choice," Hesse says. "I don’t know if they’ve been looking around, but there's not a lot of bodies out there. We want to partner with them, but they've gotta show us the money and make a commitment."