Mediator called to help with ongoing threat of grocery strike
April 30, 2009 · Updated 2:57 PM
By Dennis Box
Rumbles, rumors and whispers of a strike have been rampant around the labor negotiations between United Food and Commercial Workers Union and four grocery chains - Safeway, Albertsons, QFC and Fred Meyer.
Contract negotiations began April 19 and have moved forward in fits and spurts.
The chains began advertising for temporary workers April 23 in the event of a strike by the union. All four stores in Bonney Lake and Enumclaw continue to accept applications for temporary workers.
A federal mediator has been called in by both sides to help barter an agreement over the most contentious issue, health benefits, the pink elephant sitting in the middle of the bargaining table.
"Both sides agreed to a federal mediator," said Melinda Merrill, spokeswoman for the grocery chains. "Bringing in a mediator doesn't mean the negotiations have hit the wall. We see this as a positive step that can move negotiations along. It's not something you do because you've thrown up your hands."
The perception from the union side of the table appears to be less optimistic.
"The talks are going very slowly and the two sides are very far apart," said Dan Kully, spokesman for the UFCW. "The proposal coming from the chains would eliminate affordable health care for grocery workers in the Puget Sound. Their proposals are outrageous and draconian. These companies are earning record profits and that isn't enough. The grocery workers will not stand for it."
Under the current contract the stores pay the entire cost of health benefits for the grocery workers and meat cutters. There is a $10 co-pay for office visits and a $3, $5 or $7 dollar co-pay for prescriptions.
The companies' proposal would require the employees to pay 20 percent of their health benefits cost, a $20 co-pay for office visits and a $10, $20 and $40 co-payment for prescriptions.
The chains have maintained from the beginning of negotiations to remain competitive they must control the cost of providing health benefits.
The union contends the chains have gained in market share and profits because of their wage and benefits package.
"Grocery workers in the Puget Sound are ready to do whatever it takes to maintain affordable health care," Kully said. "We are the most focused on living wages and benefits."
The chains contend they have lost market share and the spector of Wal-Mart, a non-union discount chain, along with Costco, WinCo, Target, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, all non-union competitors, have caught the big-four's attention.
"Wal-Mart entering the grocery industry has had an impact all over the country," Merrill said. "They have lower prices because they have lower labor costs. They are a whole different kind of competitor. Their presence in the Puget Sound is growing along with a number of other non-union competitors. Over the last five years the chains have lost 6 percent of market share to non-union competitors."
Wal-Mart has 13 supercenters designed to provide grocery, meat and deli along with 36 departments of discount goods.
A supercenter is currently under construction in Covington and Sequim.
The Bonney Lake Wal-Mart is a discount store and is not slated at this time to expand for a full line of food and meat items, according to Wal-Mart spokesman Eric Burger.
"If we have the opportunity to expand we do," Burger said. "But it's case by case and I am not aware of any plans to expand the Bonney Lake store."
Wal-Mart's full-time employees pay 33 percent of their health benefits.
"We have the same health benefit plan as our CEO (chief executive officer)," Wal-Mart Spokeswoman Christi Gallagher said. "There is a lot of misinformation out there about us. Our average wage is $10.15 an hour and we don't pay minimum wage anywhere in the country."
A journeyman union grocer working for the chains makes about $16 an hour and a journeyman meat cutter $19.
The employees' contract has been extended through Friday with negotiations scheduled for today (Wednesday).
There are 259 stores involved in the contract negotiations and more than 16,000 employees.
Dennis Box can be reached at email@example.com