Grocery union's contract expiring

Negotiations affect 29,000 area workers

Deadline for deal is Tuesday

Five-month Calif. strike hangs over regional talks

March 27, 2004|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

Giant and Safeway supermarkets in the Baltimore-Washington area and the union representing 29,000 of their workers are fast approaching a Tuesday deadline for a new contract - and the threat of a strike that could cripple hundreds of local supermarkets and send tens of thousands of workers to the picket line.

Safeway Inc. and Giant Food Inc. are negotiating jointly with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents cashiers, meat cutters and other workers. Their contract has been extended to expire Tuesday.

The local negotiation comes on the heels of a tumultuous supermarket strike and lockout in Southern California that lasted five months. Although it is difficult to predict what will happen here, industry analysts say both sides showed a willingness to endure a bitter, extended battle out West.

The effects of that strike could play out across the country, starting in this region, labor experts say. California-based Safeway is also negotiating contracts in several other cities across the country, including Seattle and Denver and in Arizona.

If Giant and Safeway workers strike, it would be the first time in at least three decades. The supermarket business has changed greatly during that span, particularly in recent years as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other nonunion retailers have picked off shopper dollars.

"My clear sense was that employers in retail around the country were very closely watching the Southern California dispute, and I think both the union and the employers saw this as something that would set the trend for bargaining in this industry in other parts of the country," said Paul Clark, a labor studies and industrial relations professor at Pennsylvania State University.

Other unionized supermarket chains in the area - Metro, Super Fresh and Eddie's - are part of separate contract negotiations not under way, so a strike would mean employees at those stores would continue to work.

UFCW Local 400 of Washington and Local 27 of Baltimore are scheduled to vote Tuesday on a contract still being negotiated. Giant and Safeway supermarkets in the region will be closed from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday while their employees vote.

If the members reject the contract and more than two-thirds of those at Tuesday's meeting vote to authorize a strike, union leaders can use the strike vote as a bargaining chip at the negotiating table or begin a strike. A strike would send all union workers at Giant and Safeway across the region, including on the Eastern Shore, to picket lines outside stores as early as Wednesday.

Nonunion competition

A key issue in the talks is health care - an issue that dominates most collective bargaining negotiations nationwide and was the overriding issue in the long California strike and lockout. Both sides decline to discuss their talks in detail, although a union spokesman said the costs of health care benefits are at issue nationwide.

"The UFCW, nationally, is committed to maintaining affordable health care benefits for workers in the supermarket industry," said Greg Denier, the UFCW spokesman. "The supermarkets in this area are profitable; they're in a very strong market position."

Giant and Safeway officials counter that they are trying to structure wages and benefits to compete with nonunion stores, which pay their workers considerably less. The average hourly wage of a clerk at Safeway or Giant is $13.19, compared with $7.68 for a nonunion clerk, according to Safeway.

"The main threat is the nonunion competition," said Harry Burton, the lead negotiator for Giant and Safeway. "They essentially do not have pension benefits as we have; and they pay very little in heath benefits."

Wal-Mart opens about 220 "supercenters" a year - large discount stores with grocery stores attached, said Andrew Wolf, a retail analyst for BB&T Capital Markets in Richmond, Va. The supercenters are typically in suburban and rural areas, he said. Wal-Mart said it has five supercenters in Maryland, none of them in Baltimore. That's not nearly as saturated as in Virginia and Pennsylvania, where it has about 60 apiece, Wolf said.

"They do a lot of business, and they are opening more stores than anyone else," Wolf said.

But the unionized grocers' struggle to adapt benefits and wages to compete with Wal-Mart also represents a shift in employer attitude, said Bill Barry, director of labor studies at the Community College of Baltimore County. It used to be that nonunion employers would adopt the wages and working conditions of union companies, spreading unionism beyond its members. Now, the opposite is true, he said.

"For decades, the unions have set the tone for all of society and established things such as paid vacations as `normal,'" Barry said. "What we're seeing now, probably due to the decline of unionism, is things that were always considered normal are now up for grabs."

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