Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Kowalski's workers narrowly avoid strike as organizing surges in Twin Cities

A sign taped on a door reads "on strike." A person holds a sign up.
Union organizing continues its surge across Minnesota and the nation. Starbucks workers in St. Paul hold signs and chant during the "Unfair Labor Practice Strike" on March 22.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Workers at six Kowalski’s grocery stores across the Twin Cities will not walk off the job this week after all.

About 600 workers had authorized an unfair labor practices strike last week. But this past Friday the union, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 663, announced it has a tentative agreement with Kolwalski’s management. This is the latest Twin Cities grocery store union to narrowly avoid a strike.

In the meantime, union organizing continues its surge across Minnesota and the nation.

For more on the context of this moment, MPR News host Cathy Wurzer spoke with Peter Rachleff. He’s co-executive director of the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul, and a retired history professor at Macalester College specializing in labor history.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Workers at six Kowalski's grocery stores across the Twin Cities will not walk off the job this week after all. About 600 workers had authorized an unfair labor practices strike last week. But this past Friday, the union, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 663, announced it has a tentative agreement with Kowalski's management.

This is the latest Twin Cities grocery store union to narrowly avoid a strike. In the meantime, union organizing continues its surge across Minnesota and the nation. Peter Rachleff is on the line right now. He's the co-executive director of the East Side Freedom Library in Saint Paul and a retired history professor at Macalester College, specializing in labor history. Professor Rachleff, always a pleasure. Welcome back.

PETER RACHLEFF: Thank you, Cathy. It's great to be able to talk with you.

CATHY WURZER: Likewise. Let's talk a little about what's happening here in the Twin Cities. Cub Foods workers were ready to strike back in April, Lunds & Byerlys workers in June. Agreements were reached to stave off strikes.

And I was noticing that these workers are all part of the same union. And I learned doing some research that it's been more than 30 years since that union, the UFCW Local 663, last struck a Minnesota grocery store. What are the conditions today that are driving the union toward potential walkouts?

PETER RACHLEFF: Well, as I was thinking about this, I thought also about how close we've come to a nationwide strike at UPS and that there is a developing conflict throughout the MNSU system with administrative and service faculty represented by Teamsters Local 320. We know that the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild are on strike in Hollywood and across the country, including some folks here in Minnesota.

There is a lot going on. Also locally, workers at four Half Price Bookstores had short-term strikes. And obviously, Starbucks and Trader Joe's. And as I thought about what connects all of this together, it's that good old American expression of a fair day's work for a fair day's pay.

And I think that workers are challenging the process by which management determines, what is a fair day's work? Does it include mandatory overtime? Does it include part-time work that cannot be transformed into full-time work?

We're hearing about a pending conflict with the Big Three automakers, where the speed of the assembly line and the amount of work that workers are being expected to do is a central issue. So what is a fair day's work? And how is that determined? Do workers have a voice in determining what is a fair day's work?

And co-relatively, what is a fair day's pay? How is that determined? Do workers have a voice in that with the inflation that we've experienced since COVID, with the language of calling some workers essential, leading them to expect that they ought to be compensated as if they are truly essential?

So a fair day's work for a fair day's pay is really a theme that unites so much of what is going on in American workplaces and at American collective bargaining tables these days, including the supermarkets. Please go ahead.

CATHY WURZER: And you think the pandemic opened the door to all of this-- a lot of this?

PETER RACHLEFF: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely, with some people being able to work remotely, with ways that some places remain shorthanded, and the stress that workers were experiencing was increasing. I'm a historian. If we look back historically at the so-called Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-1919 at the tail end of World War I and right after, there was a great deal of labor organizing and labor conflict in the wake of that flu epidemic.

So pandemics focus the attention on what matters. How does our work matter? Are we being treated and compensated as if our work matters? And frankly, how hard would it be for them to replace us if we went out on strike?

And so we're seeing this heightened sense of the need for a voice and a voice that's listened to in determining, what is a fair day's work? And what is a fair day's pay?

CATHY WURZER: So getting back to the grocery store workers, I was thinking back in the 1980s, Twin Cities grocery stores were, gosh, 100% organized. Today, you get Aldi and Hy-Vee in the market. Do those non-union chains affect negotiations?

PETER RACHLEFF: It doesn't seem that they are. I think that the major part of the market, Lunds Byerlys, Cub, Kowalski's, Whole Foods-- the major part of the market is organized. Whole Foods is not, but the major part is.

And I think we're at of time where the standards that might be set in the unionized stores are quickly being adopted in the non-union stores because the employers and managers are afraid of losing their workforce if they don't keep up in terms of hours and compensation.

CATHY WURZER: You mentioned, of course, as a historian-- and things are cyclical. As you mentioned, after the 1918 flu pandemic, there was a move to organize. And then of course, we've seen it ebb and flow. Right now, we seem like there is a great deal of union organizing going on right now. What might tip the scales and maybe swing the pendulum back in the other direction?

PETER RACHLEFF: I think the pendulum is still swinging in the direction of more voice and more opportunity for the workers. It will be interesting and important to see, obviously, what happens at Amazon, what happens with Starbucks. Here, we have employers, in the case of Starbucks, with 3,000 stores around the country.

And workers have organized pretty effectively and won elections at over 400 of those stores. But Starbucks management has still been unwilling to come to the bargaining table and negotiate a contract. Half Price Bookstores, we have four stores that have organized here in the Twin Cities area. They probably have 30 stores. Half Price is the largest vendor of used books in the United States.

At Amazon, workers have organized at some of the warehouses, and drivers have organized in California. But there's still this struggle, as they say in the world of labor relations, to get that first contract. It was exciting to see locally that the Minnesota Historical Society workers across the state unionized and got a first contract this year.

Science Museum of Minnesota workers have organized but have not yet reached that first contract. If there is an inability to reach a contract at some of these high-visibility places, like Amazon, like Science Museum of Minnesota, like Starbucks-- if there's an inability to reach that first contract, we might start to see a push-back on the pendulum. But I think right now, there's a tremendous amount of energy, enthusiasm.

It's also, in many cases, a whole new generation that is grabbing the idea of unionizing in order to have a voice. It was exciting at the East Side Freedom Library to have a panel of workers from the Science Museum and from the Minnesota Historical Society who talked not only about wages and benefits, but also about their desire to have a voice in what exhibits their institutions put up, what issues their institutions address. So they want to push on that old canard of management prerogatives.

They want to have more voice about what their industry, what their employer is doing. It's a very exciting time to be around the labor movement.

CATHY WURZER: All right. Peter Rachleff, always great talking to you. Thank you for the background.

PETER RACHLEFF: Thank you, Cathy. It's always great to talk with you. Stay well.

CATHY WURZER: You too. Peter Rachleff is a co-executive director of the East Side Freedom Library. That's in Saint Paul. He's a retired history professor at Macalester College. He specialized in labor history.

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