Dave Kamper: Missed opportunity 50 years ago offers insight into labor’s current challenges

applebaumsThe Union Advocate recently reported that Local 1189 of the UFCW has rejected a so-called “final offer” in negotiations with the owners of Cub, Rainbow, Lunds & Byerly’s, and other major retail grocers in the East Metro. Notably absent from the negotiations, of course, are two of the largest grocery retailers in the Metro, Wal-Mart and Target, which remain rabidly anti-union. Those non-union retailers threaten the market share of their unionized competitors, and that competition is going to continue to make it harder for unions to win the contracts their members deserve.

It wasn’t always this way.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the overwhelming majority of the Twin Cities grocery market was unionized. The Retail Clerks International Association Local 789 had a master grocery agreement covering more than two dozen retailers in St Paul and the surrounding suburbs. Wages were higher. Jobs were more secure.

What happened between then and now can be shown, in a microcosm, by looking at a union election held fifty years ago, on March 2, 1966, at an Applebaum’s grocery store in Burnsville.

In one corner there was RCIA Local 789, whose archives donated to the Minnesota Historical Society form the basis of this essay. In the other corner: Local 653A of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America. The Meat Cutters and the RCIA had been battling for suburban Applebaum’s stores across the Metro. Local 789 had recently won in Roseville, while the Meat Cutters had won in Bloomington. Both were putting it all on the line in Burnsville. It was a small unit, just 51 workers, but the two unions treated the contest as though their entire future was at stake.

The RCIA brought in staff from Duluth and Madison, Wisconsin, to help out. They printed an expensive, fifteen-page pamphlet with pictures of happy union members and their stories of how the union had helped them. There was Tom, for example, who went full-time just out of high school and was already making $2.94 per hour, and Blanche, who took advantage of the union’s seniority provisions to bid on a choice vacancy. When the Local 789 business agent began to suspect that some of the Applebaum’s employees were secret moles working for the Meat Cutters, they filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board (later dismissed for lack of evidence). When one of their pollwatchers was made to return to work for the second shift and thus couldn’t be there to monitor the election, they filed another charge. The union’s newsletter denounced the Meat Cutters as “night riders.”

After all that, the Meat Cutters won, 28-12.

Three things about this story are important to our understanding of the present. First, it’s worth noting the power of union density on wages. Tom, whose picture was in the pamphlet put out by Local 789, made $2.94 per hour. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Inflation Calculator, that’s just under $22.00 an hour today. Tom Kohler was just out of high school and yet he was earning more than what half of all American workers make today. When unions are strong, they can make any job a living-wage job.

The second is that, less than 10 years after this election, the Retail Clerks and the Meat Cutters merged to form today’s United Food and Commercial Workers. No doubt, in 1966, both unions had good reasons to believe they were the best one to represent Applebaum’s workers, but in retrospect it’s hard to understand why they fought so hard against each other.

But it’s the third thing that’s the real kicker. You see, this was no ordinary Applebaum’s. It wasn’t a free-standing grocery store. Instead, it was a store-within-a-store. This particular Applebaum’s, and the ones in Roseville and Bloomington, were located in a new and expanding chain of discount stores: Target.

Yes, that Target. In the 1960s, when it opened, Target had unionized grocery store employees operating within its walls.

Every day, then, across the Twin Cities, dozens of unionized grocery workers – many of them union officers or stewards, not to mention their union staff – walked into work and strode past the non-unionized workers of Target.

Local 789 was emphatic with its members in its newsletter: “Whenever and wherever a discount store opens in your area … you must be on the premises, signing the clerks to authorization cards BEFORE THEY OPEN THEIR DOORS.” And yet, there is no evidence that 789 or the Meat Cutters, in the midst of their Burnsville struggle, ever made any effort to talk to the employees of Target and ask them about joining a union.

It wouldn’t necessarily have been easy. Dayton’s, the parent company of Target, had long tried (successfully) to keep unions out of their flagship department stores in Minneapolis and St Paul. They would probably have tried to keep unions out of Target, too. But we can’t know how successful they would have been, since no one seems to have tried. And it’s certainly a harder task now.

Those who fail to remember history, George Santayana said, are condemned forever to repeat it. No union jobs are permanently secure. It’s past time for labor leaders to explain to their members the urgent need for all unions – and all union members – to put more time, money and energy into organizing new unions. The failure to do so today will be with us for decades to come.

Organize, or go under. That’s the choice.

– Dave Kamper is a Twin Cities labor organizer and a proud member of OPEIU Local 12 and UAW Local 1981. He first joined a union – the UFCW, as it happens – when bagging groceries in the Chicago suburbs twenty-five years ago. The views expressed in this essay are his alone. He thanks the Minnesota Historical Society for their help examining the Local 789 archives. The research for this essay was undertaken as part of the Union Leadership and Administration program at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He can be reached at dskamper@hotmail.com or followed on Twitter @dskamper.

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