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Seward Community Co-op Workers Will Vote to Authorize a Strike Today

The vote follows ‘virtually total participation’ in recent walkouts.

10:51 AM CDT on September 26, 2023

UFCW Local 663|

Workers gather outside the Seward Co-op’s Friendship store location during a mid-September walkout.

After weeks of bargaining, worker actions, and alleged retaliation from management, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 663 members at Seward Community Co-op are voting today on whether to authorize an Unfair Labor Practice strike.

Co-op workers—roughly 190 of them across Seward’s locations—have been working without a contract since August 20 as they attempt to bargain for a new one that would increase pay, address wage equity and cost of living raises, and allow for additional paid maternal leave. 

Whitney, a multi-department clerk at the Franklin Seward Co-op location, says that up until early September, workers thought the bargaining process was moving forward. They’d come to tentative agreements on most issues, and workers were ready to present a counterproposal. 

“We thought we were gonna get really close, and wrap up within the next meeting or two. And then they just dropped us,” she says.

Seward Co-op management walked out of back-to-back bargaining sessions on September 7 and 8, refusing to return to the table on either day. 

“All of a sudden they seemed over it, weren’t coming to the table, and [left] early while we sat in the room and waited for them to come back,” says Whitney.

In the intervening weeks, frustrated co-op workers have held a number of actions at both the Franklin (2823 E. Franklin Ave.) and Friendship (317 E 38th St.) locations. At a walkout on September 15, during which workers played union songs over the grocer’s speakers and gathered outside, there was “virtually total participation of employees in the actions” at both stores, Fight Back News reports

“One of our big things is pay equity, which is where our ‘Wearing our Wages’ campaign really came in,” Whitney says. After bargaining stalled, co-op workers began scrawling their pay on their name tags and masks, often surprising shoppers with how little they were making. “We were able to really demonstrate the vast range of wages that people have for a lot of the same positions.”

These actions—wearing wages on masks, staging walk-outs during work hours—are considered “protected concerted activity” under federal labor law, meaning that the co-op cannot legally discharge, discipline, or threaten workers who engage in such actions. 

But since their contract expired, Whitney says, there’s been retaliation against targeted members of the co-op staff, including surveillance and unilateral changes made without worker input. “Especially to schedules,” she says. “People are being scheduled outside their availability, and being, essentially, forced to come in and work shifts [when] they have other jobs that they have to do. Management is not being flexible in that aspect.”

Racket has reached out to Seward Community Co-op for comment but has not received a response. 

UFCW Local 663 has already filed Unfair Labor Practices charges with the National Labor Relations Board. Today’s strike authorization vote seeks to stop management from engaging in that alleged retaliatory behavior and get back to the bargaining table.

So far in 2023, workers at Cub Foods, Lunds & Byerlys, and Kowalski’s Markets have all taken Unfair Labor Practice strike votes, with all three overwhelmingly voting to authorize. If Seward Co-op employees do the same, they would be the fourth group of Twin Cities grocery workers with UFCW Local 663 to do so this year, though workers at the other three area chains managed to reach an agreement before a strike was held.

Whitney, who’s been employed by Seward Co-op for a year and 28 days (she looked it up just before our conversation) has really enjoyed working there so far, “particularly for the community aspect.” She lives in south Minneapolis and loves working alongside and serving other people in her neighborhood. These days, some of her favorite shifts are the ones when she gets to talk to customers about what’s going on with the union.

“The community’s really behind us,” she says. “Especially the owner-members.” 

She and her co-workers feel that the co-op represents itself as an equitable place to work, and one that’s proud to hire people from the community and pay them well. They just want to see that characterization put into practice.  

“I’m nervous, but I’m mostly excited,” Whitney adds. “Since they walked away from the table we’ve really just kind of been sitting on our hands, and I’m excited to get some movement and get it done.”

Update: Racket has been informed about a statement issued last week by Seward Co-op to "clear up misinformation about Seward Co-op management’s willingness to negotiate with the union. A narrative shared online is that management walked out of bargaining earlier this month and is refusing to come back to the table to finish negotiations. This is untrue." You can read the full thing here.

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