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3,000 Cub Workers Set Strike Authorization Vote for Tuesday

"That’s the beast we’re fighting: East Coast company, thinks they can come in and bully everybody," says produce manager Brett Carlson.

UFCW Local 663|

Cub workers demonstrating Friday in Bloomington.

Grocery worker Brett Carlson has been represented by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 663 for 35 years, and during his 25 years at Cub Foods he has never witnessed contract talks break down this badly.

“They’re not listening to us, so we’re going to have a strike vote," says the produce manager at the St. Anthony Cub. "All we need is two-thirds to go for a strike, and we already have that number."

If workers vote to strike, the labor stoppage wouldn't be subject to a cooling off period and would last two days, union officials tell Racket. Around 3,000 workers at 33 UNFI-owned Cub shops could walk off the job throughout the Twin Cities. The Teamsters and the baker union have already pledged to not cross picket lines, Carlson says. Vote totals are expected to be announced around 8 p.m. Tuesday via Facebook. (Update: Of the union workers who voted, 94.5% of 'em voted to authorize a strike, according to an update posted Tuesday evening.)

"This is the first time we’ve actually thought about striking," he says, adding that there's no set strike date yet. "UNFI is a little different than Supervalu. That’s the beast we’re fighting: East Coast company, thinks they can come in and bully everybody."

Cub's parent company, Rhode Island-headquartered United Natural Foods Inc., purchased the local grocery chain from Supervalu five years ago for $2.9 billion. During the worst of the pandemic, it enjoyed double-digit sales gains, according to this laudatory Star Tribune profile of outgoing company CEO Mike Stigers.

This is UNFI's first contract rodeo with UFCW Local 663. So far, the company has been "off the mark and so tone-deaf" during negotiations, union President Rena Wong told Racket last month. The union is accusing UNFI of unfair labor practices.

“The proposals that the employers made were just really disrespectful to what the workers have lived through and worked through to keep Minnesota fed during the pandemic," says Wong, whose union reps around 17,000 total workers, including ones at Lunds & Byerlys, Kowalski’s, and the Seward co-op. "These are frontline workers who are heroes—they really sacrificed to keep our state running.”

Shoppers may have picked up on the current tenor of contract talks, as Cub workers have been staging indoor and outdoor rallies over the past month. "Respect us! Protect us! Pay us!" has been the go-to message expressed by picketing workers. Wages are the top sticking point; Carlson says workers haven't received "a decent raise" in 10 years.

"The hardest part of the pandemic for me was trying to be as careful as I could, and trying to stay healthy," deli worker Willis Olive said Friday as union members demonstrated outside of the Bloomington Cub. "I want Cub to understand we deserve a proper wage raise for everyone, and we deserve more respect."

Mike Wilken, a PR manager with UNFI, took issue with those walkouts, defending the company's contract offers and telling Racket, "the union engaged its members to participate in counterproductive short walkouts at multiple store locations." He provided a statement from Stigers about Cub valuing its team members.

With around 80 locations, Cub remains the king of the Twin Cities grocery market, despite increased flexing from non-union competitors like Iowa-based Hy-Vee, Germany-based ALDI, and locally based Target. UFCW Local 663 represents workers at 30+ UNFI-operated Cubs; a handful of franchisee shops owned by Jerry’s Enterprises, Haug, and Radermacher are also under the union's umbrella. Those three companies inked contracts with workers earlier this year that include 10-16% raises, according to the union.

"[Striking] is a last resort thing, and we hate to use it, but sometimes you have to use it. If we don’t fight now, the next contract they’re just going to bowl us over,” Carlson says. "I want to leave the union as strong as when I came into it. My grandfather helped found it.” 

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