Giant, Safeway avert a strike

Contract is approved by over 90% of workers

both sides seem pleased

Better than many expected

Health care benefits stay largely intact for current employees

March 31, 2004|By Stacey Hirsh and Jamie Smith Hopkins | Stacey Hirsh and Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

With overwhelming approval of a new contract yesterday, union employees of Safeway and Giant supermarkets in the Baltimore-Washington area and their employers averted any replay of the bruising grocery strike that recently concluded in California.

Union officials said the contract between the two supermarket chains, which have a total of about 340 grocery stores in the Baltimore-Washington area, and 29,000 members of the United Food and Commercial Workers largely preserved the health care benefits of existing employees.

Health care benefits have been the major point of contention in collective bargaining situations in many industries. The issue triggered a recent supermarket strike in Southern California that cost the groceries billions of dollars in revenue and customer loyalty, and the workers five months of lost wages.

Union supermarkets have said they need concessions to hold down labor costs and successfully compete with nonunion stores, such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp., that have shaken up the food industry. But such concessions are slow in coming, after the bruising battle in California paved the way for a less contentious accord in this market.

"This is some contract," said Buddy Mays, president of the UFCW Local 27 of Baltimore. "This contract will probably be the model contract for the entire nation."

The companies seemed pleased as well, saying the agreement would allow the stores to compete with nonunion and discount retailers in the area.

"The objective of these negotiations was to design ways of managing labor costs in response to the changing competitive realities of the retail food industry. Through good-faith collective bargaining, the unions and the companies drafted an agreement that protects the excellent wages and benefits of our employees while addressing the issue of rising health care costs and a changing competitive marketplace," Harry Burton, chief negotiator for Giant and Safeway, said in a statement.

More than 90 percent of the UFCW Local 27, which represents Safeway and Giant workers in Baltimore and the surrounding area, voted by paper ballot to approve the new contract. UFCW Local 400, which represents supermarket workers in Washington and the surrounding area and votes by a show of members standing up, voted unanimously to approve the contract, according to union leaders. The supermarkets closed for part of yesterday so workers could vote.

Higher deductible

Under the terms of the new contract, existing workers will continue to pay nothing toward the premium on health care benefits, though their annual deductible will increase to $200 from $100 and other items, such as co-payments on prescription drugs, will go up.

New supermarket workers will have higher co-payments than existing workers, however, and will have longer waiting periods before they are eligible for the same health care benefits as current workers, according to a copy of the contract changes provided by the union.

Supermarket workers also got raises totaling $1.25 an hour over four years.

"The majority of the changes will affect future, rather than current, employees. That being said, future employees of Giant and Safeway will continue to be among the best compensated retail employees in the Baltimore/Washington market," said Burton, the supermarket negotiator.

Current Safeway and Giant workers, for instance, will continue to earn time-and-a-half or double-time for working on Sundays.

New workers will start at $1 extra per hour on Sundays, and eventually work their way up to earning time-and-a-half after five years with the company.

"We created a new tier for health and welfare, and also premiums on Sunday instead of time-and-a-half and double-time," said Mays, the UFCW Local 27 president.

`A great contract'

As Mays explained the new contract to workers at the Timonium fairgrounds yesterday before they cast their ballots, the crowd erupted in cheers several times.

"I think we got a great contract - a great contract," said Kathy Phillips, 36, a dairy and produce clerk at the Safeway on Ingleside Avenue in Catonsville.

The contract is better than she expected, and Phillips was especially happy that she and her co-workers will not have to contribute to health care premiums.

"We were all apprehensive as we walked in," she said.

"All that worrying for nothing!" exclaimed a co-worker, Ruth Donaghy, 33.

Lynda Powell, 40, a clerk at the Safeway at Charles and 25th streets in Baltimore, also breathed a sigh of relief that she wouldn't have to pay for health care premiums and was thrilled to see that her pay will soon increase.

"In the eight years that I've been here, the wage increases have been incredible," she said, "and I hope they keep up the good work."

Some disappointed

But not everyone voted in favor of the contract.

Ken Lookingbill, 49, has worked for Giant for 28 years and was disappointed that the company isn't doing anything extra for retirees, a group he plans to join in two years.

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