By DAVID A. COOK
Let me start by saying I can’t believe I’m writing the words “2021 is coming to an end.” Time seems to fly at a new pace these days, particularly during the last two years as a global pandemic and a presidential election seemed to swallow whole years of our lives.
2021 is very nearly over and there’s no doubt 2022 will bring its own challenges. First, it is once again an election year, and I have no doubt that those elections will have a significant impact on hard-working families. Missouri will be electing a new U.S. Senator and races at the congressional and local level will surely dominate the news soon.
2022 is also our time to bargain a new contract with our two major employers: Schnucks and Dierbergs. As usual, those contracts will impact nearly every other contract we bargain and will also set the standard against which the non-union grocery industry will have to compete.
A CHALLENGING BARGAINING PROCESS
I anticipate a very challenging bargaining process, not because our major employers are adversarial, but because of the massive groundswell among workers right now could potentially be counter-intuitive to some of our goals.
As I said during our opening contract meetings: I want to shoot for the moon in this contract, but you have to be careful when you shoot for the moon, because if you shoot too far and too fast, you end up on the sun where you get burned.
2022 will be filled with challenges that we have to meet head on. But if the last few years is any indication, this organization can survive just about anything with the right leadership and commitment. Our UFCW Local 655 partners working these past two years have demonstrated an unbelievable capacity for hard work and poise. This is perhaps one of the most difficult times in history to work in retail, and thousands of our partners did it with grace.
OUR PARTNERS HAVE DONE SO MUCH
In the last two years, our partners have done so much. You worked during the early days of the pandemic when tensions were at your highest. You worked as your union and your employers scrambled to get safety measures in place and open up our health & welfare benefits to accommodate this new reality. You worked as waves of workers quit or took leaves of absence for health reasons, adding more hours to their work lives. You worked as millions of workers were told to stay home, because keeping your local grocery store open is one of the most important things you can do.
You worked as the pandemic was quickly politicized. You worked as irate customers screamed at you about mask mandates or social distancing. You worked as your employers brought in record profits but struggled to find employees willing to work.
You worked while we fought to get hero pay for frontline workers, something our own state leaders brushed aside.
It may be a long time before the world looks like it did “pre-COVID.” We might be wearing masks on planes or showing proof of vaccination to go certain places for a long time. As we move forward in our brave new world, our union has a responsibility to evolve with the changing times.
AUTOMATION IS IN OUR FUTURE
We have to consider how technology will not only impact our ability to communicate and function better, but how it could impact the jobs in our stores. Automation is in our future, how it affects us will be the work of myself and future leaders of this organization.
The idea of ‘hero pay’ or some other additional compensation wasn’t heard of two years ago, but now it’s something any organization representing grocery workers must consider. After all, you truly are frontline workers, and when a global event shutters businesses but keeps workers like our partners on the job, we need to work with our local and national elected officials to make sure these workers are fairly compensated.
We have to think about how local health ordinances impact our partners, how laws surrounding vaccines or workplace rules might change the dynamics on the job, and about how we raise wages to attract new hires while also making sure our long-term partners are being compensated fairly for their years of experience.
HUMBLED BY WHAT YOU HAVE DONE
I’ve said it many times, and I’ll say it again as I look back on the last two years and look forward into the next one: I am honored and humbled to represent you, our partners of Local 655. As frontline heroes you worked while many of us got to stay home, you did it during an anxious time for this nation with customers and coworkers feeling the weight of all this tension, and you didn’t miss a beat. Your employers thrived because of the work you did.
I’m humbled by what you have done. As I look forward, I plan to honor the hard work you have done.