Negotiations between four major Western Washington grocery chains and the unions that represent some 20,000 of their employees continued late last week and over the weekend. But according to UFCW 21 Communications Director Tom Geiger, significant disagreements over pay, pensions and health care still exist between the company negotiating on behalf of Fred Meyer, QFC, Safeway and Albertsons -- Allied Employers - and the three unions representing area grocery workers.
With grocery workers in Snohomish, King, Kitsap and Pierce counties already having voted to authorize a strike back in late September, Geiger says workers in Thurston and Mason counties could soon be adding their weight to that list. Geiger says strike authorization votes in these counties are scheduled for Tuesday, potentially adding 1,000 UFCW 367 members to the list of grocery workers prepared to hit the picket lines if an adequate contract isn’t agreed upon.
Thanks to a temporary contract extension that allows grocery workers to continue working while negotiations proceed, workers are required to provide 72-hours notice to employers before any strike commences. Employers also have the power to void this temporary contract extension - effectively locking out workers- but would also be required to provide 72-hour notice before doing so.
Meanwhile, negotiations between the unions and employers are scheduled to resume Wednesday. All told, Geiger says the unions represent workers at roughly 200 stores, and if Thurston and Mason counties vote to authorize a strike 21,000 workers could soon be walking off the job. (Widespread media reports have indicated the strike could include some 30,000 Western Washington grocery workers, though Geiger says that’s the number of all the grocery workers the unions represent - including workers at smaller stores that would not be affected by a strike.)
According to Geiger, “new ideas” have been presented over the last four days of negotiations that could “potentially solve health and pension plan problems” in the proposal currently on the table. However, he says these ideas still need to be reviewed by lawyers and experts, and is careful to caution that an “idea is very different” from an actual proposal. He calls any progress between employers and grocery store workers over the last week “incremental,” and says “the vast majority” of the problems the unions have identified with the grocers’ contract proposal “are still on the table.”
The list of issues the unions have with their current contract offer is “still too long and too serious to be anywhere close to an agreement,” says Geiger.
Last week Scott Powers, chief negotiator from Allied Employers Inc., issued a statement to The News Tribune in Tacoma, saying: “We are currently focused on working through the issues with the union at the bargaining table. Our goals are to reach an agreement that is good for our associates, providing them a solid compensation package of pay and benefits; and good for the companies too, so they can be competitive and continue to provide good, stable jobs. We are focused on those important objectives.”
One area where some progress has been made, according to Geiger, is in health care benefit coverage for employees working 30 hours a week. The UFCW Communications Director indicates that employers have “conditionally withdrawn” a proposal that would have cut health care coverage for these employees, calling the development “an important move.”
That said, overall Geiger says the unions’ patience is running thin and it’s past time for employers to come to the table with a suitable offer.
“If the employers are serious about a proposal they should be making it,” says Geiger, noting that negotiations have been going on since March. “I think patience is running out on that front.”
If a deal isn’t reached soon, Geiger indicates strike preparation is well underway.
“It takes a tremendous amount of work to organize an effective strike,” he says. “It’s almost like a military operation.”