Innovative effort designed to give as many members as possible a voice in upcoming contract talks with Schnucks, Dierbergs
By ED FINKELSTEIN
“One good job should be enough.”
With that as the unofficial theme for upcoming contract negotiations with the local food industry, where too often workers have to have two jobs in order to make ends meet for their families, UFCW Local 655 launched an innovative communications effort to listen to and engage its members in preparation for the negotiations involving almost 8,000 union members. The initial talks will be with Schnucks Markets with Dierbergs to follow. Those contracts set a pattern for the rest of the industry.
The effort — using modern telephone teleconference techniques and Facebook live broadcasts — involves four stages to ensure the widest possible opportunity for members to participate in the negotiations:
- Stage 1 – Telephone Survey: a member telephone survey covered a broad range of issues giving members a chance to express their general feelings about the union, its leadership and staff and programs they thought were either positive or negative. More than half the union’s membership whose phone numbers were contacted, responded.
- Stage 2 – Teleconference Town Halls: a series of three live teleconference Town Hall meetings in which the union actually dialed members for whom it had phone numbers and posted a call-in number for others. Almost 2,000 members (a quarter of the members covered by the contract) were on the calls made March 6 and 7. After the two-hour sessions of expressing their opinions and needs for contract changes directly to Cook, members had the opportunity to leave a recorded message so that all concerns would be heard.
- Stage 3 – In-person/live stream Meetings: two traditional in-person union meetings were held March 12 for those either unable to participate in the telephone teleconferences Town Hall or preferred to attend a traditional in-person contract meeting. The evening meetings were streamed live via Facebook with members submitting their questions and comments via Facebook live and Cook informing the members at the meeting what was being suggested via Facebook.
- Stage 4 – Voting to Rank Issues: two final teleconference Town Hall meetings were held yesterday, March 20, to allow members to electronically vote on their phones and prioritize the issues gathered from the five meetings. These will be the focus of the contract talks.
While upcoming negotiations will impact some 8,000 members employed at Schnucks and Dierbergs, members from the shuttered Shop ‘n Save also participated so their concerns could be heard as well. The current contracts expire this May 12. While the first negotiations will be with Schnucks, Dierbergs is expected to be in the meetings, as the Schnucks contract has a direct effect on theirs as well.
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At each of the meetings, Local 655 President David Cook asked members to candidly express their concerns about the contract and what changes or issues they would like addressed in contract talks.
“This first-ever effort to engage the largest number of members is vitally important to our negotiations because it gives us the data to back up our bargaining goals,” Cook said. He pointed out that for the last contract, 820 members attended the six in-person meetings held throughout the union’s geographical jurisdiction. “In the three teleconference calls, over 1,200 members participated plus 1,200 members took part in the member survey.”
Among the incredibly wide variety of issues and concerns (and even some complaints) raised were the impact on the union’s pension plan as a result of the stock market fluctuations, health care benefits and eligibility rules, raises for all levels of employees, seniority, part-timers work schedules and pay, adequate advance notice of work schedules, night shift manning, lunch breaks, impact of new minimum wage law, overtime rules, early retirement, vendor stocking, breaks and the need for more staffing both in the stores and the pharmacy.
Cook responded to each caller.
“These have been some of the best meetings I’ve been part of in decades,” Cook said proudly, making the point that the efforts have been well received by Local 655 members.
With a smile he said that immediately after the first series of teleconference calls, he and his wife were in their local grocery when a number of members approached him with solid compliments, highlighted by the comment of one member: “One of the best things we’ve ever done.”
A WORD OF CAUTION: ‘ALL IN THIS TOGETHER’
Pointing out the wide variety of concerns, Cook cautioned his members that not everything everyone wants is possible in negotiations. “We will have to make choices based on the majority of our members responses,” he pointed out, but cautioned:
“We need to be careful not to turn against one another. Employers try to do that all the time and if they succeed, they win. We’re all in this together, let’s not forget that even though we have differences.”
One message that came through load and clear: cuts in health care benefits will not be acceptable under any circumstances. “I’m willing to strike over this issue,” several callers said.
FIRST IN NATION?
Local 655’s efforts are first in the entire United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, and perhaps in the entire AFL-CIO. An AFL-CIO spokesman told the Labor Tribune they were not aware of anything like by any other union in the United States.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: to gauge the impact of the teleconference Town Hall concept, the Labor Tribune listened to the first teleconference session and attended one of the in-person/Facebook meeting in order to make this report.)