The State of Your Union

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By DAVID A. COOK
President

“Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”
– President John F. Kennedy

It’s 1978, and a young bagger at Kroger is on his way to Jefferson City. He’s heading to the state capitol because his father told him that attending the rally wasn’t optional. It was, of course, but the message was clear.

So, the bagger boards a bus and makes the ride down to Jefferson City with his union brothers and sisters. Some of them are older, some of them are his age. Everyone is shaking hands and hugging. They call each other “brother” and “sister” and everyone really does seem like a family.

They arrive in Jefferson City and there are union men and women handing out hats and shirts and buttons. They say things like “Ripoff!” and “Right-to-Work is a scam!”

At the rally, thousands and thousands of union men and women listen as union leaders and elected officials take the stage. They pound the podium and shout. They talk about things like good union wages and benefits. They use words like “collective bargaining” and “solidarity.”

The bagger leaves the rally feeling something new. Something has clicked, and all he can do is think about how important his union family is, how important defeating so-called “Right-to-Work” is, and how important it is to stand with workers for a better life.

What that bagger didn’t know was that one day he would have an opportunity he would have never dreamed of – that the members/partners of Local 655 would elect him to lead this great union, and he’d be writing this column one day and telling his partners that the past year has been historic for his union family.

TELL US HOW WE ARE DOING
This time last year, your union was already gearing up for one of our most important duties. Contracts with two of our largest employers, Schnucks and Dierbergs, were set to expire in a few months.

As we entered 2019, we needed to try new things and put Local 655 in the best possible position for negotiations.

We had two goals: (1) to get true scientific data on what our partners thought, what they wanted, and what they needed in a new contract, and (2) to radically increase participation in the contract process.

Accomplishing these two goals would give us real leverage in bargaining. So, we set out to try something new.

By February, we were conducting our first-ever live telephone surveys of our partners.

We used this opportunity not just to ask you about your contract, but your union in general. We wanted to know how we were doing, how our union representatives were doing, and how we were communicating.

After that, we dedicated ourselves to getting equally effective information for our contract negotiations. In March, we did something we have never done before. We held opening contract meetings both in person at our contract union meeting and several live telephone town hall conference calls.

We know you are busy, you have a life to live, and schedules that are demanding. It’s not always easy, or even feasible. to ask you to drive out of your way to attend a contract meeting. We were dedicated to fixing that, and we brought the meeting to you.

Every partner with a phone and a little free time could contribute to these meetings and give us honest feedback, and the participation was astounding!

Thanks to these meetings, and our Facebook live meetings (a little more on that later), we had more data from you than ever before. Your company could no longer tell us that we didn’t know what you truly wanted.

In short, we’d heard from you more than ever before, and we weren’t done yet.

‘WE NOW GO LIVE…’
During our opening contract meetings in March, we focused on gathering reliable information and making this local union as accessible as possible to partners like you. Your union shouldn’t be far away or difficult to contact; it shouldn’t be mysterious or hard to navigate, because it belongs to you.

It was that mantra of accessibility and accountability that led us to the decision to broadcast our meetings live on Facebook, so that our partners could participate from the comfort of their homes, their breakrooms, or wherever they had a phone, tablet or computer and a few moments of their time.

The meeting was an incredible success. Thousands of you participated in the meeting online. We had more questions and comments about the contract from Facebook than we did from those who attended in person.

We couldn’t deny the success of the Facebook Live experiment, and so we decided from that moment forward to broadcast all our membership/partner meetings live on Facebook as well. It didn’t take long for our partners to weigh in and tell us that this new step was a welcome one.

Soon we had partners watching meetings from their couches at home, or from their breakrooms, or wherever they could. We were doubling and tripling and quadrupling meeting participation, and making union meetings accessible to anyone who could find our Facebook page.
Just a few months into this new live meeting process, we had a partner show us the value.

At one of our meetings, we announced the winners of the Local 655 Education Grants. One of our partners then commented on the live feed that she was watching the meeting in her breakroom, and that one of the grant winners was working with her that evening. So, this person got up and found her coworker and told her that she’d just won some money to go toward her education.

We made the decision to broadcast our meetings on Facebook live with the understanding that they aren’t only for our partners. They are for the public as well. We have to change the image of unions as hidden behind some dark curtain or tucked away in some smoky room. If we are proud of the work we do for our partners – and I am proud– then why on Earth don’t we want the public to know about it?

The biggest enemy of Organized Labor isn’t incompetence or even corporate greed. It’s the ignorance of the public. Too many of them simply don’t know what the value of a union is to working people. If we can make even a tiny dent in that problem by opening our doors, then I’m glad to do it.

‘ONE GOOD JOB SHOULD BE ENOUGH’
When we entered bargaining with our biggest employers this year, I told you that one good job should be enough.

I said one good job should be enough in America. I believed that then, and I believe it now. It was one of our prevailing motivations entering negotiations. These union jobs should be enough for you.

I’m proud to say that our contracts for Schnucks and Dierbergs partners are as good as I’ve seen in 20 years at Local 655. There’s a few reasons that this is true: a good economy and low unemployment helped. A state minimum wage increasing every year — thanks in part to the work we did on that campaign — helped. Having greater data and participation from you than ever before helped.

We came to the bargaining table with a clear motivation and clear goals. I’m happy to say we were able to present contracts to our Dierbergs and Schnucks partners that featured real wage increases, especially for part-time workers that have seen too little attention in recent years, and healthcare benefit improvements. I’m proud to say that pensions for both Schnucks and Dierbergs partners are more secure than they were this time last year. I’m proud to say that our contracts reflect the hard work that our partners do, and make real steps into reinforcing our mantra that one good job should be enough.

Oh, and speaking of pensions….

DIEBERGS, AND THE FUTURE OF PENSIONS
“What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you’ll never see.” – Lin Manuel-Miranda

Early in 2019, Dierbergs approached me with a clear message: they couldn’t expand and grow their business without changing their pension program. Simply put, they wanted to leave the pension fund they were in along with Schnucks and several other employers represented by Local 655 and create something new.

I told them in no uncertain terms that I would only allow them to leave the pension if they accomplished two things: make the current pension fund better off than it was before, and protect future benefits to ensure that Dierbergs partners could have a real retirement going forward.

I could spend pages and pages on the new pension we bargained with Dierbergs. These are details I have covered in great detail with Dierbergs partners, and we are still carefully crafting the nitty gritty details of these benefits.

Suffice it to say that the pension fund that Dierbergs left is indeed better funded than it was when they were in it, thanks to their payment to the existing pension fund we negotiated when they made their exit. And I am thrilled to confirm that future benefits for Dierbergs partners won’t suffer thanks to this new plan.

Raising the minimum wage was a victory. Defeating “Right-to-Work” (twice) was a triumph. Bargaining these most recent contracts was a success.

But this new Dierbergs pension fund is, to put it simply, the proudest thing I’ve ever had the honor of achieving as your president.

I don’t know if I’ll be around in 30 years or not. But what I do know is hard-working men and women will be collecting checks from a pension fund that lets them retire in comfort and with dignity. While I may not be fortunate enough to witness this pension truly thriving, the knowledge that families will be able to retire a little bit easier because of the work your union did will make it a little easier to lay my head down every night.

…AND THE KITCHEN SINK
I’ve covered a lot of the things we’ve accomplished this past year, but there simply isn’t enough room for everything. But make no mistake, Local 655 never stops.

Some days are easy. Many days are hard. But here at your union, we believe in the work we do. We believe in our partners. We believe in a better life for hard-working men and women. We believe that one good job should be enough.

And to 2020, we say: get ready for Local 655.

St. Louis employers that don’t treat their employees with the respect and dignity they deserve? Get ready for Local 655.

We’re going to ratchet-up our program of talking to the public about employers that are not worker-friendly. We’re going to continue asking the public to change their shopping habits until that non- union employer makes a decision to pay the wages and benefits that their employees deserve.

In closing I will repeat what I have said hundreds of times. To you my Local 655 partners allowing me to lead this great Union is the highest honor I could have ever hoped for and I thank each one of you for allowing me this privilege.

Thanks to each of you for what you do for the Local 655 family!

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