Editorial: Ain’t no Stopping us Now

After two years of learning how to successfully navigate through just about all of the challenges that the pandemic has posed, when it comes to contract negotiating…we’re on the move.  As I look back about eighteen months ago at the mountain of contracts that were expiring, it seemed like a daunting task to attack them.  Especially when you consider we couldn’t even have in-person meetings for months, I asked myself, how are we ever going to do this? Approaching two years ago, we started to sign onto one-year long extensions just so we could get through what would hopefully be the most difficult time of the pandemic.

But just as the great song says, we didn’t let nothing hold us back…we put ourselves together and we polished up our act.  And after pretty much mastering the art of running or partaking in virtual meetings, we finally got our gears turning in late 2020, and haven’t stopped yet.  

Since the end of 2020, we have been able to successfully negotiate contracts for our members working in: Stop & Shop, Wild by Nature, Food Bazaar (A&P Acquired), Columbus Foods, Abed Key Food, Associated of Rockville Center, Food Basket of Bayville, Scaturro, Hale & Hearty Soups, Gemstone Key Food, Powerhouse/Holiday Farms, Holiday Farms of Glen Head, D.A.G. Provision Inc., HMSM Food Corp (Food Universe), Tops Markets, Dan’s Supreme Legacy Key Food, Dan’s Supreme A&P Acquired Key Food, Man-Dell Key Food, Five & One Key Food, Buonadonna ShopRite, Mannix and SRS ShopRite’s, two contracts at Glass Gardens ShopRite, and an acquisition deal at King’s Supermarket.  That’s twenty-five separate negotiations and/or successful ratifications in the past eighteen months.

And we are still moving forward.  This year we are riding all of our momentum to negotiate contracts for our members working in Pick Quick Key Food (which comprises of three distinct contracts), Matlyn Key Food, Village ShopRite, D’Agostino, Gristedes, King Kullen, and King Kullen Pharmacists.  At the time of this writing, we have three bargaining dates set with King Kullen, so we’re next up to bat with them.  And seeing as Kullen employs our second largest group of members (behind Stop & Shop), this is a big event.

We’re pretty happy about what we have been able to accomplish so far, as many members may not realize what goes into bargaining a contract.  It is not just sitting at a table alongside a committee of members and across from company officials.  There is a lot of that, yes, but there is so much more that happens before, during, and after negotiations that takes place, in order to deliver you a physical copy of your new contract. 

It starts with getting volunteers or appointees to sit on their respective company’s committee; then we need to coordinate dates when all of the committee members are available, so we can introduce everyone and outline a plan.  This part is where Zoom meetings have proven to be beneficial.  If we need to have introductory, or quick update meetings, it’s much easier to schedule virtual meetings because people do not have to travel before/during/after work, or on their day off to get to those meetings. 

Then we need to schedule bargaining dates with the company.  This is trickier than it sounds.  In a Covid world, where the stores are busier, it becomes harder to get necessary company officials to attend a meeting.  Add to that point, that we are sometimes bargaining multiple contracts at the same time, our availability also becomes challenging.  But once we finally lock down dates, we’re able to really get moving.

The bargaining process can take anywhere from hours to months, depending on the company and either side’s asks or demands.  So, after an initial meeting or two, where the Union committee typically presents their proposals and then the Company comes back the second meeting typically with a counter proposal, we start to hash things out. 

Usually, negotiating is a series of back-and-forth gestures from either side which start off distant but slowly progress toward each other, finally culminating with a tentative agreement being reached between the Union committee and the Company.  Sounds like success, right?  Not so fast. 

After a tentative agreement or T/A is reached, we draw up a document called a memorandum of agreement, or MOA.  Both the Union and the Company scrutinize the MOA to make sure everything that was agreed to is included, and that anything that wasn’t agreed to…is not included.  This process can take up to a couple of days, depending on whether or not the company used an attorney. 

Ok, so now the MOA is signed.  We’re done right? Dikembe would say AH-AH-AH! None of our contracts become contracts without our membership ratifying it.  So, it’s time to schedule the votes.  Recently we have been bringing the ratification votes right to the stores.  First, Covid has prevented us from using hotels, and second, we get more member turn-out from holding the votes in the stores.  Unfortunately, however, we do not have enough staff or committee members to hold some votes in every store.  That is why you’ll often see voting notices with only a few voting locations on them.  I’ll get back to voting notices soon…don’t jump the gun.

When scheduling a ratification vote, we need to find a solution that marries 1. The best locations (typically the largest stores, or the easier stores for members to get to) 2. Based on committee member availability and numbers, and geography, how many stores will we have voting sites in?  3. How many staffers we can assign to each and all locations (who’s on vacation, who’s out sick, who’s out on a special assignment)?   4. What is the best time frame to have voting sessions open during?  Once everything seemingly works, create assignments, and notify everyone that will be involved in working the vote.  Now create voting notices.  Print them, then strategically get notices into the hands of our staff and have them put them up in every store that will be voting the new contract.  When you’re talking about 75 Stop & Shop stores, for example, that’s a big and important task.

Then comes ratification day.  Probably some of the most nerve-wracking days that I’ve had.  Will the membership turn out to vote?  Will the membership like the new contract?  Will more people vote yes than vote no?  Will the members that did not sit across from the company at the bargaining table understand what it took to bring this contract to them? The arguments?  The hard feelings?  The venting about things they know will not change, no matter how hard they tried?  Looking their company officials in the eye and demanding more?  Sometimes feeling insulted by their very own boss or company official?  Will the members that come in to vote give our staff and the committee members there at the ballot box the time of day needed to understand what they fought for and accomplished for them?  When the vote is over, rip open the boxes and certify the count.  We’ve done this entire process just about 25 times in the past year or so.  To say it’s been an intense year is an understatement.