3/22/08

UFCW threatens strike against big grocers

Union leaders representing workers in contract negotiations with Giant Food and Safeway said yesterday that they are bracing members for a strike as talks with the Baltimore (MD) area's two largest grocers stall. Safeway and Giant Food, meanwhile, have begun advertising for temporary workers as contracts covering 23,000 workers near expiration March 31.

The companies said hiring additional staffing is standard during contract negotiations. Safeway said in a newspaper advertisement that the hiring of temporary employees was in "preparation for a possible labor dispute." The grocers said they plan to keep stores open if there is a strike.

Safeway and Giant referred calls about the labor bargaining to attorney Harry Burton, who is leading negotiations for the two grocers. He declined to comment on specifics.

Leaders of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 400 in Landover and Local 27 in Baltimore said the supermarkets are seeking concessions that they are not willing to give.

"At this point there very likely could be a work stoppage," said Tim Goins, vice president and director of legislation for UFCW Local 27. "There hasn't been a whole lot of movement from the company."

Union members will take a strike vote April 1 if agreement has not been reached or talks aren't extended.

On its Web site, UFCW Local 400 said the companies continue to ask for "givebacks that the union considers unacceptable." It said the main issues involve pensions, health and welfare benefits, wages, new hires, vendors and new technology.

Buddy Mays, president of UFCW Local 27 and a lead negotiator, said the companies are seeking additional co-pays and higher health care costs for employees, among other things. He also said they want concessions from retirees, though he declined to give specifics.

Unionized supermarkets have been saying for several years that they need concessions to hold down labor costs to successfully compete with nonunion grocers, such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp., that have lower payroll and benefits costs.

Health care has been one of the biggest issues.

5-month strike

In 2003 the issue set off a bitter supermarket strike in Southern California, where about 70,000 UFCW workers went on strike for five months at 850 stores owned by Safeway, Albertsons Inc. and Kroger. That strike cost the grocers billions of dollars in revenue.

Mays said local union members feel they made enough concessions in their last contract, signed in 2004.

That contract created a tiered system under which new hires paid higher co-payments than existing workers and had longer waiting periods for health care coverage.

Higher deductibles

Current workers saw their annual deductible jump from $100 to $200, and co-payments and prescription drug costs increased.

"We felt like we gave them the opportunity last time to compete better with union and nonunion competition," Mays said.

If Giant and Safeway workers strike, it would be the first time in at least three decades. Local 27 last went on strike in 1963 and Local 400 in 1973, Mays said.

The two sides are scheduled to meet again Tuesday.

(baltimoresun.com)

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