Grocery workers expected to ratify Md.-D.C. contract

Health care a top issue

strike appears unlikely

March 30, 2004|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

About 29,000 Giant and Safeway supermarket workers in the Baltimore-Washington area are expected to vote today to accept a proposed contract that grocery and union officials have spent weeks negotiating.

About 340 grocery stores throughout Maryland and the D.C. area will be closed from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. today so cashiers, meat cutters and other workers - members of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union - can vote on the proposed agreement.

Union and company officials were saying virtually nothing about the offer on the table or the likelihood of a strike.

Buddy Mays, president of UFCW Local 27, which represents 7,500 Giant and Safeway workers in the Baltimore area and on the Eastern Shore, would not comment on whether the offer was being recommended for approval.

But a strike at hundreds of stores in the metropolitan area is unlikely, labor experts said.

The two sides have been working hard to avoid a walkout, they said, given the devastating effects of a five-month supermarket strike and lockout in Southern California that ended just weeks ago. That dispute cost the supermarkets billions in lost sales.

"I think they're both battered and bleeding after that terrible thing in California, and logic says neither side wants to go through that again," said Bill Barry, director of labor studies at the Community College of Baltimore County.

"Given the timing of this, I wouldn't expect to see the UFCW take its people out" on strike, said Robert Bruno, an associate professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois.

Negotiations concluded at 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Safeway had a recording on its employee hot line yesterday that said: "After weeks of negotiations, the companies have given the union our settlement offer. Union leadership will present the offer to membership at meetings scheduled for Tuesday, March 30th."

Giant's Web site had a similar message.

Health care has been a top issue in the negotiations, as in most recent collective bargaining situations nationally, because of fast-rising costs.

The companies, which are negotiating together, say they face the threat of non-union competition from such retailers as Wal-Mart and Target, which offer employees far less expensive pension and health benefits.

The union argues that increasing employee contributions to help pay for basic health insurance could deter workers, some of whom work fewer than 40 hours a week, from getting benefits at all. (Full-time workers currently make copayments on health care services but do not pay premiums.)

"Premiums become a barrier to participation in health care plans. We want everybody to participate in the plan," said Greg Denier, a spokesman for the international UFCW.

Health care benefits are extremely important to Butch Springfield, who works in the meat department at the Safeway on North Charles Street in Baltimore. He's the only one working in his family and he has a 17-month-old son to care for.

"We know we're going to be sick," Springfield said, adding that contributing to his premium would be an economic hardship. "It would just be an uphill battle. You've got a car payment, mortgage, a little one."

Springfield, 29, started working at Safeway as a grocery-bagger in high school and hopes to someday retire from there. But he was prepared to go on strike rather than make concessions in a new contract, he said.

Shoppers, meanwhile, were hopeful yesterday that the workers and the company would iron out their differences.

"All the students shop here - we all get our food here," said Sean Burke, a 24-year-old medical student who was shopping at the Safeway in Canton yesterday. "That would be a big loss. I hope it works out."

Many shoppers said that, if there were a strike, they would take their business elsewhere.

Joyce Chapman, 49, of West Baltimore walks 45 minutes to the Rotunda each week so she can shop at Giant and cash in on its sales. If there's a strike, Chapman said, she would not cross a picket line.

"I guess I have to go to Super Fresh," she said.

Charles Craver, a labor law professor at the George Washington University Law School and author of The Intelligent Negotiator, said the contract negotiations between the supermarkets and the union represent a turning point for labor.

Nonunion stores such as Wal-Mart and Costco are undercutting union wages, he said. And when competitors have labor costs that are so much lower, it becomes very difficult for the unionized stores to compete.

"Because of the growth of unions, many jobs that were either service or blue-collar became middle class, and they really did usher in a middle-class existence for people who didn't finish college," he said. "And now we're seeing tremendous downward pressure from the nonunion firms, and what this can be attributable to is the decline of organized labor."

If organized labor cannot unionize some of the supermarkets' nonunion competitors, labor is going to suffer more losses in the future, Craver said. The unions could suffer cuts in wages and benefits, or union stores could close, he said:

"So these people are actually voting, in part, not just what their wages are going to be, but whether they're going to have continued employment in the long run."

Staff writer Tracy Swartz contributed to this article.

Closed for voting

Giant and Safeway supermarkets will be closed from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. today so members of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union can vote on the proposed agreement.

Grocery facts

* Company headquarters: Safeway: Pleasanton, Calif.

Giant: Landover, Md.

* Number of workers affected by contract: 29,000

* Number of stores affected (approximate):

Safeway: 138

Giant: 199

SOURCES: Safeway, Giant and UFGW, SUN STAFF

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