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The second union contract took effect Wednesday at the Willy Street Co-op, bringing minimum starting pay to $15 an hour and raising average wages by 20% over the two-year term.

The second union contract took effect Wednesday at the Willy Street Co-op, bringing minimum starting pay to $15 an hour and raising average wages by 20% over the two-year term.

“We're actually able to be competitive in the job market now,” said David Droster, chief steward of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) Local 1186, which represents roughly 300 nonmanagerial Co-op workers at the three Madison stores and central kitchen. The workers overwhelmingly voted in a union in September 2019, just months before the COVID-19 pandemic would earn grocery workers across the country the moniker of “essential workers.” 

Negotiations began in early February for the new contract. Members of the rank-and-file union approved it on Feb. 28 by a “strong majority,” Droster said. The union does not release ratification vote results.

According to Droster, Co-op management initially responded to the union’s proposed raises with a “pretty severe lowball” counter offer before suggesting higher increases for lower-paid workers and smaller increases for higher-paid (nonmanagerial) workers. 

The union, meanwhile, wanted identical increases for all, which it said would help the Co-op not only recruit new workers but retain experienced workers, allowing the stores to hold onto valuable knowledge. “We think that there is a need on both the highest and lowest ends for retention. We weren’t really interested in robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Droster said.

After union members packed a meeting during an ice storm, management agreed. Under the new contract, wages for all workers will increase by $1.20 on Wednesday, raising the Co-op’s minimum wage from $13.80 to $15 an hour. With two more increases over the two-year period, wages will rise by a total of $3.10 across the board. 

The move comes as both wages and prices are rising across the country, with inflation last month hitting 7.9%. Last month, American Family Insurance group announced that its five companies would raise their minimum wage to $23 come July. National retail chains have been raising their company minimum wages in recent years, and some offer a higher starting wage in Madison to compete in the local market. Walmart’s national minimum is currently $12 an hour, while Amazon and Target offer $15. 

“There's no reason you should be getting poached by Walmart,” Droster said.

The contract also reduces the probationary period for new employees from 90 days to 60 days, meaning that employees get benefits, sick time and are fully covered by the union contract a month sooner. “We don't think there's any reason why you can't figure out if someone's fit for the job in 60 days,” Droster said.

Other key changes in the contract include allowing employees to rollover unused sick time from one year to the next or donate it to a shared sick leave bank for those experiencing emergencies, extending vacation benefits to part-time employees, expanding eligibility for unpaid leaves of absence, and requiring management to post unfilled shifts so that employees can sign up, even if it means they get overtime pay. 

“We’re pleased to have negotiated a second contract with the UE 1186 that offers additional benefits and wage increases for our employees while being mindful of our fiscal responsibility for our Owners and the Co-op’s long-term success,” said Willy Street Co-op general manager Anya Firszt in an email. 

A union of ‘essential’ workers 

The previous union contract began March 16, 2020, the week before Gov. Tony Evers issued his first lockdown order. Grocery stores were among the “essential” businesses exempt from shutdown requirements. Throughout the coming months, the union negotiated a series of temporary agreements that provided hazard pay, codified safety requirements and allowed workers to take unpaid time off without penalty to get tested for COVID if they had symptoms or believed they had been exposed, Droster said.

He credits the union, in part, for the Co-op’s “shockingly low” number of COVID cases, and for preventing the “brutal” level of turnover that might have resulted if workers didn’t feel they had any control in the workplace.

“We're working in grocery, in public-facing work, during a pandemic. It's hugely stressful for people. And so just to be able to alleviate some of that stress through changes that we can make through collective action is awesome,” Droster said. “Just knowing you have some lever on things is hugely empowering to people.”

The new contract runs through March 15, 2024, but Droster, who’s been organizing his coworkers since before the 2019 union vote, is already thinking ahead to the next round of negotiations. And in the meantime, he’s hoping other workers — grocery or otherwise — might find inspiration in what the union has accomplished in its first three years.

“I would love, as a member of his union, to extend a hand to any other co-op or anyone else who is looking to improve their condition and looking to protect themselves,” Droster said. “We would love to talk to any other workers who wish to reach out.”

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