Kowalski's to get lump of coal from labor union

A local labor union plans to give Kowalski's Markets a lump of coal this afternoon over a contract dispute.

The union, UFCW 1189, has been negotiating its contract with Kowalski's since last January, but the two sides cannot come to an agreement on key issues. Today the union is taking its message public with a demonstration at the St. Paul Kowalski's on Grand at 4 p.m..

"I think you'll see the Grinch there. I think you'll see Santa," said Bernie Hesse, UFCW political director. "I've got a really good feeling you'll see a pile of coal there."

Months of negotiations earlier this year failed to garner an agreement between the union and the supermarket chain, so Kowalski's implemented its new contract August 1, claiming it had the legal right to do so because it had come to an "impasse" with the union.

UFCW responded by filing a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board disputing that there was an impasse. The NLRB ruled October 18 that the two sides were, in fact, at an impasse, validating Kowalski's claim.

Kowalski's contract would replace the current pension system with a 401K retirement plan, a change the union rejects.

"Kowalski's has implemented a contract the union feels is substandard," says Jennifer Christensen, secretary treasurer of UFCW.

"We wouldn't be withdrawing from the pension unless it was the right thing to do," counters Mike Oase, Kowalski's vice president of operations.

Both sides saw a federal mediator on December 8, but nothing was accomplished at the meeting.

"We got back together, found out they had no interest from the get-go in our 401K plan," says Kris Kowalski Christiansen, chief operating officer of Kowalski's. "That's why we're at an impasse."

"They showed up and said, 'We're not going to sit in a room with you,'" says UFCW's Hesse. "So we said that's not really bargaining."

That fight is now spilling onto the street, as the union wants to send a message to the Kowalski family by giving them a lump a coal "for their bad behavior."

Kowalski Christiansen was at a loss for words when asked about the planned demonstration.

"I don't even know what to say about that. It's Christmas week. It's unprofessional," Kowalski Christiansen says. "I don't think that gets people anywhere. That's not how we deal with situations.

"I don't know how much that's going to get us to a solution, a lump of coal and a Grinch," she adds, "but that's the way they operate."

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