In Final Hours of Labor Talks, Grocery Workers Face Cash-Strapped Times, and Scabs

Update: A tentative agreement has been reached between the grocery workers and the four grocery chains , averting a strike. Here’s the statement from union spokesperson Tom Geiger: “ We are very pleased to announce that today at 5 PM the union member bargaining team from UFCW 21 & 367 and Teamsters 38 reached a tentative agreement with the national grocery chains in contract negotiations. This tentative agreement has been unanimously recommended by the union member bargaining team. Details will not to be released until after union members themselves have had the opportunity to review the tentative agreement and vote on it. The times and locations of those vote meetings will be announced in the coming days after arrangements have been made to schedule the votes.”

**Original Post**

With every passing hour the chances of a grocery workers strike in Western Washington look more and more likely. On Friday night, unions representing employees at Safeway, Albertsons, Fred Meyer and QFC in six counties - King, Snohomish, Pierce, Kitsap, Thurston and Mason – officially gave the 72-hours noticed required before hitting the picket line. Though UFCW 21 Communications Director Tom Geiger has indicated talks are ongoing, according to at least one grocery worker willing to speak to Seattle Weekly, the feeling on the ground is a strike is imminent.

Meanwhile, union officials have spent Monday referring all press inquires to Geiger, whose voice mail is now full and who has yet to respond to inquiries from Seattle Weekly. What’s clear is that if the two sides are unable to reach a deal by 7 p.m. tonight, Western Washington will see its first grocery strike since 1989, with roughly 22,000 workers hitting the picket lines. The 1989 grocery strike lasted three months.

“I honestly don’t know anyone who can really afford to go on strike or really who wants to,” says a 14-year Safeway employee from Pierce County, who spoke to Seattle Weekly on condition of anonymity. “But we can’t afford to accept these offers [from the national chains] either. … I feel like it’s going to hurt us more in the long term if we accept the offers we’ve seen so far.”

“I think [the strike] is going to happen. I don’ know how long it will last,” offers the Safeway employee when asked to gauge the feeling among her colleagues at a store faced with the possibility of a strike. Asked how long she could afford to go on strike, the employee says bluntly, “maybe a month.”

If workers do hit the picket lines, there’s no question the financial repercussions will be felt. The employee we spoke to believed that grocery employees who engage in picketing for 24 hours a week will be paid up to $200 via the unions’ strike fund. (Unfortunately, with Geiger not responding to inquires today, the exacts of how much striking workers will be paid could not be confirmed.) It stands to reason, however, that $200 a week isn’t going to cut it for long for many area grocery workers – with bills to pay and many with families to feed. Geiger indicated in a press release Saturday that a food donation drive to support striking workers has also been launched.

While local grocery workers are left preparing for the possibility of a strike, so too are local grocery chains. Signs have been posted at local stores looking for temporary employees in the event of a strike, and according the Safeway vet quoted above, training of new employees was taking place over the weekend at her store. “I couldn’t get into my office because they were training new people,” she tells Seattle Weekly of the scene and the growing tension with management. Representatives from Safeway failed to respond to request for comment for this piece.

At the root of the dispute are three main concerns, according to union officials: making sure health care benefits for those working 30 hours a week aren’t cut, negotiating acceptable starting pay for new hires, and making sure holidays continue to be overtime. While she’s personally concerned with the possibility of losing health care coverage – saying she couldn’t afford coverage through the Affordable Care Act on her own - the Safeway worker we spoke with says much of the contract standoff is about protecting new hires. “It’s pretty bad for them,” she says of new hires, who currently earn 10-cents an hour above the state’s minimum wage of $9.19. Unions are seeking 20-cents above minimum wage for new hires, while up until recently the grocery chains were looking to drop new hires down to minimum wage, Geiger told the Seattle Times Saturday.

The overtime pay for holidays is also a major sticking point, according to the Safeway employee. “I’ve given up holidays with my family for 14 years to make that little bit of extra bit of money,” she says. “I’m not going to do that without being compensated.”

Despite the looming strike, the longtime Safeway employee says she hasn’t seen customers at her store loading up on groceries. Instead, she says, the vast majority of customers have been supportive. Stand With Our Checkers, a website created to provide moral support for workers in the event of a strike, has created a map of places shoppers can go to avoid crossing picket lines if a strike does commence tonight.

Stay tuned.

 
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