“Finally Somebody’s Fighting For Us”: Grocery Store Workers are Fed Up

How grocery store workers in Greater Minnesota fighting for better pay and working conditions are sticking together and transforming their union.

The past year and a half, let alone the past four years, have been busy for grocery store workers in Minnesota, especially union members who have been in contract negotiations. Thousands of metro-area UFCW Local 663 members at UNFI Cub Foods, Lunds & Byerlys, Kowalski’s Markets, and Seward Community Co-op voted to authorize unfair labor practice (ULP) strikes, and reached tentative agreements (TA) that members voted to approve. Workers took actions, from voting to authorize strikes and marching on the boss to flyering outside stores. In many cases, in the eleventh hour before going on strike, employers gave into workers’ demands.

A monumental labor struggle has taken place in the Brainerd Lakes Area, a two-hour drive north from the Twin Cities where almost 100,000 Minnesotans live and work. Workers at two Cub Foods, two Super Ones, and a SuperValu voted 88% in favor of accepting a contract on May 2. They had been negotiating since November and conducted a four-day ULP strike over the Christmas holiday from December 22 to 25. After that strike, members rejected another contract offer in January. 

In addition to a global pandemic and high turnover that have created heavy workloads requiring workers to take on multiple jobs at a time, workers say they’ve faced harassment and surveillance from management. During negotiations, the union brought five ULP complaints to the National Labor Relations Board, charging their employers with alleged harassment, intimidation, interrogation, retaliation, surveillance, and refusal to bargain in good faith. However, the union agreed to drop the ULPs as part of the tentative agreement.

According to the union, members at the Miner’s-owned store won an average wage increase of 17 %, and union members at the Quisberg-owned stores won a 21 % increase. Over three years, full-time employees at Miner’s will receive a $3.50 to $5.45 wage increase, and Quisberg’s will receive a $4.45 to $7.15 wage increase, and all part-time employees will receive an increase of $2.25 to $3.75. They also won more paid time off, language on transfers based on seniority, more pathways toward health insurance benefits and pensions, and the establishment of safety and security captains. According to the union, the bargaining committee urged members to vote yes. But some workers say they had been hoping membership would reject the agreement and go on to win more concessions during the busy summer tourist season.

“It’s not just about helping us, but also helping union grocery workers around the state,” says UFCW member Doug Olson, who has worked on the Clean Team at the Cub Foods in Baxter, Minn., for 17 years. “Winning this struggle is gonna give others hope, just like all the victories the union had in the Twin Cities last year that gave us hope.” 

Olson says that he believes chronic understaffing and high turnover will continue under the new contract, so he voted against it, and says he plans to join the negotiating team in 2026 when the new contract is up. “Many of the people who voted yes will probably regret doing so when they see conditions at the Brainerd-area union grocery stores continue to deteriorate over the next two and a half years. I could be wrong, but I don’t believe conditions will improve,” he says in an email.

“These employers, they’ve conveniently forgotten who are essential workers,” said president of UFCW Local 663 Rena Wong before a TA was reached. “It feels very much like that was lip service during a time when we were in crisis.”

The owners also put out ads in local radio, newspapers, and even a website claiming the union has been damaging the relationship between management, workers, and the community. A recent op-ed in the Brainerd Dispatch urged the public to support the store against workers’ demands. It was written by Matt Kilian, the president of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, which Quisberg used to chair. Workday Magazine reached out to Chris Quisberg but never received a response.

“We’ve sort of noticed that there’s this dichotomy between the public image that the Quisbergs present, and how they pay their workers, who are the ones that create that wealth for them so that they can donate that money,” says Matty Herold, a manager on duty at the Baxter Cub who has worked there for six years. She says that workers became angry that their demands were portrayed as unreasonable. “Every department in the store is one employee away from falling apart,” she says. “I hear about my coworkers struggling to make rent. Then I see the Quisbergs are sponsoring a golf tournament. That’s good, but also, can you pay your employees so we aren’t struggling?”

During March’s Week of Action, a delegation of workers from the Brainerd Lakes Area traveled to St. Paul to support striking nursing home workers with UFCW Local 663 and SEIU Minnesota & Iowa who were rallying at the state capitol. They were also there to take action against Quisberg, who was supposed to show up to a “bipartisan bag-off” event hosted by the Minnesota Grocers Association, which he chairs, inside the capitol rotunda. However, Quisberg didn’t show up.

One of those workers was Faith Molby, who has been on special project union representative (SPUR) leave with UFCW Local 663. Molby is a front-end manager at the Pequot Lakes SuperValu who does bookkeeping for the store and runs general merchandise, the pharmacy, and the gas pumps. She began working there when she was 18, stayed for a few years before leaving, and has been there the last nine years.

UFCW Local 663 members on strike joined nurses with SEIU Healthcare Minnesota & Iowa at a state capitol rally during March’s Week of Action. Photo by Amie Stager.

Another one of the workers was Trace Ellward, who is originally from Missouri and has been working in grocery stores since he was 15. He has worked as a meat cutter at the Baxter Cub Foods for the past 23 years since moving to Minnesota. 

Workers say this round of contract negotiations has been more transparent and open than the past, and they’ve been able to take on more active roles within their union and bargaining committee. “UFCW essential grocery store workers in Brainerd Lakes will continue to proudly serve neighbors, family, friends, and visitors. UFCW welcomes any worker that wants to build a better life together,” said Michael LaCoste, secretary-treasurer for UFCW Local 663 and lead union negotiator, in a press release.

The following interviews took place before membership voted to accept the contract. The interviews did not take place at the same time and were combined and edited for clarity and length.

Workday Magazine: How long have you lived in Brainerd?

Faith Molby: Since I was five–35 years.

Trace Ellward: Since 2001.

WM: When you started working, did you know what a union was?

Molby: I started with the company when I was 18, and I worked there for four or five years, then I left and came back. I did know what a union was, but I definitely was not involved. It was more hush-hush.

Ellward: I moved to Houston when I was 19, and that’s when I became an apprentice as a meat cutter. I went to Kansas and worked. It was a right-to-work state. Of all the places—until now—I’ve seen a union work was in a right-to-work state. That local went from mid-Missouri to mid-Kansas. They had a whole different attitude. We’d tell you to fly a kite if you didn’t do what I tell you to do, you work for me. 

WM: When did you start getting more active in your union?

Molby: Two years ago, on our last contract, I was on the negotiating committee. And I thought that was kind of neat. So I decided to do it again this time. And I’m really glad I did, since everything has changed so much. And they’re actually letting our voice be heard. This time, we got there, and they opened up our contract, and they were like, “How do you feel about this?” We actually got a voice in what we wanted to fight for, whereas in previous years, they’re just like, “Here’s the five things we’re gonna go for.” So it was nice to be actually heard.

Ellward: I’ve always been, but we never got to up here. Everything was settled before you could talk about it. This new one we got with [UFCW Local 663 President Rena Wong]–a whole different ball game. Finally somebody’s fighting for us. That article in the newspaper, that full page ad, that opinion article we just read– the Quisbergs have always worked so well with the union until this new representative came in, and they keep trying to blame that on the union. Finally, the union’s working for us. They keep on trying to put it in the public’s perception of dividing us. And we’re tired of it. 

WM: Faith, tell me about SPUR.

Molby: I’m on leave from my job. Just working with the union. So I go to the five stores, and I try to have conversations, answer questions. You know, because there are people that are, you know, “I don’t like you, I’m not going to tell you about what’s going on.” I’m kind of that middle ground. Just another body and friendly face that people can ask questions. I’ve answered a lot of questions.

WM: Trace, so this was the first time you’ve been involved in bargaining?

Ellward: Yes. I would go to meetings and listen. But we never had opportunities. I had never been down to the state capitol. 

WM: When we met at the capitol, there was that bipartisan bag-off event. What did you think of that action and how that went?

Molby: I think it went really great. I was so nervous, but after we got back outside, it was so empowering and exciting.

Ellward: It was amazing. It really was. You know, the people that came by to unify like that.

WM: Can you tell me what it was like to go on strike over Christmas last year?

Molby: My store’s such a small, tight-knit store. We’re basically like a family. There were lots of conversations about why we’re doing what we’re doing, and fighting as a family, not just for ourselves. Am I okay with what I’m getting offered, while the Clean Team isn’t, and the cashiers aren’t in there? Like, I can’t be selfish. I think a lot of people at my store feel that way too. So it was pretty easy getting people to want to be on the strike line. Some people weren’t and that was okay. They just chose to stay home. But that first morning was nerve-wracking. Oh, geez. But it got easier every minute, and then it became fun, and we had a good time.

Ellward: Everybody was enthusiastic. [Management] has hardly taken any time off because they’re scared that we’re going to walk out. I keep on telling them you need to settle the contract in May, because that’s when it gets busy up here.

WM: Do you think the bosses got the message then?

Molby: I think the Quisbergs did. The Miners did too, because they had to bring in a whole bunch of people from corporate, but I don’t think it did as much as the Quisbergs.

Ellward: I don’t know. They still haven’t settled.

WM: How are negotiations going?

Molby: We haven’t come to an agreement, but there’s a lot of conversations, a lot of questions being asked. We’ve been flyering, I think that has an effect on the Quisberg side. We have another meeting on the 22nd. I’m very optimistic and hopeful, we’re getting closer and closer.

Ellward: At the negotiations, they’ll make you sit for five or six hours. They’ll come back, and then they go back and make you sit for six more hours. Last time it was like 11 o’clock at night when it was done. Doesn’t feel like it’s done. And it’s all tactics, is what it is.

WM: What are some demands that you’re making?

Molby: Fair wages for all, especially our clean team. And our part-timers, but we’re focused on the Clean Team.

Ellward: A lot of its wages. Especially for the part-timers. I’m not so worried about myself, but Doug’s on the Clean Team. They do all the nasty work, cleaning up after people. 

WM: I’ve read in union press releases and saw the ULPs that workers have faced surveillance and harassment from management. Have you experienced any of that?

Molby: I did turn one in for a Baxter store, I filed a ULP. But at my store, with my store director, he has kind of just been trying to stay away. So I personally haven’t felt that at my store.

Ellward: Faith came into the store and we went in the cooler and her and I were talking. There were three other meat cutters in the cutting room. Store manager comes in and asks what are you doing here? She goes, I’m union, I can talk to him. He goes, no you can’t. She’s texting somebody to find out if it’s an unfair labor practice, and it is, and she sends me a form I got to fill out. One of the meat cutters said that he came to the door asking for me. But he never came back and told me what he was asking for.

WM: You were talking about fighting for everybody and fighting as a family. What does solidarity mean to you?

Molby: Solidarity is family. It’s sticking together. It’s not giving up on each other. Showing up with the strike line. We said it when we voted to authorize a strike.

Ellward: Solidarity is those I see stick together. Not those that worship the employers, that is not part of it.

WM: Do you have any stories where people came together and showed that solidarity?

Molby: We have a lot of people between the five stores that are in this contract. Some are six months away or two years away from retiring. This really does not affect them as much. They’re the ones that are showing up on the strike lines. They’re the ones that are willing to fight for the younger generation. I think that’s huge, because they didn’t have to do this. They were content with what they were offered, but they looked at the bigger picture, and knew that they needed to do something and stick up for their family.

Ellward: Molly’s been there 25 years and Doug’s been there for longer than I have. They know the tactics of the employer. It’s a small town, they want to control everything. 

WM: If you had every working person from Minnesota in a room, what would you say to them?

Molby: You really have to have conversations with your coworkers to get anything done. Don’t leave people out just because you’re not sure how they’re going to feel, because maybe they don’t know the whole truth. So you really got to have those good communications, one-on-one talks. Have each other’s backs, it’s not a one-person show. It’s a group effort and everybody needs to do their parts. Whether somebody gets the night shift and talks to them, it’s always good to see the variety of people and faces.

Ellward: Don’t do it for the money. Do what you like doing. And once you do what you like doing, you’ll become the best at it and the money will chase you. I heard that from a fisherman when I was about 38. It clicked because when I started selling groceries when I was 15, it’s because I wanted a car. Suddenly you’re in debt. Then you go and get more, and then you want this and you want that. It’s how we’re programmed. All of a sudden you’re working to pay bills. Why are we doing this? And then if you have kids and family, you’re stuck doing what you’re doing because you’re there for the money. I’m saying if you do what you like doing, whether it’s chasing skunks or whatever, become the best skunk chaser you can be and the money will chase you.

WM: What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

Molby: Hanging out with my family and my kids. My fiancé has two kids, and my two kids live with us full time. We play a lot of card games and board games. Rummy, Kings in the Corner. My youngest son just taught us how to play the game, “Golf.” It’s really fun!

Ellward: Right now, watching wildlife. Watching swans breed. Over the years, they keep coming back and every year they’re still sitting there, waiting for me to feed them. 

This story is part of the Greater Minnesota Worker Listening Project series, a profile series on union and non-union workers in Greater Minnesota and other rural communities.

Amie Stager is the Associate Editor for Workday Magazine.

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