Grocery strike delayed

By Dennis Box, The Courier-Herald

A contentious grocery labor strike was delayed, if not averted, when the United Food and Commercial Workers Union agreed to a contract extension with Safeway, Albertsons, Fred Meyer and QFC.

The contract expired early last week and affected nearly 1,800 workers in grocery stores in King, Pierce, Thurston, North Mason and Kitsap counties.

The chains began advertising for temporary workers April 23 in anticipation of a strike. Signs asking for temporary workers to apply were in the windows of Safeway in Bonney Lake and Enumclaw and QFC in Enumclaw.

The contract extension is on a meeting-by-meeting basis. It calls for five meetings in May. The first was May 5, the next two are Thursday and Friday, and the final sessions are slated for May 19 and 20. Either side can call off the negotiations after a meeting ends if progress has stalled.

"I think it is safe to say both side can see some progress," said Melinda Merrill, spokeswoman for the four grocery chains. "Both sides are seeing enough movement to come back to the table."

The negotiations began with an exchange of proposals by the union and the grocery chains April 19.

The key issues on the table causing the most problems are health benefits, wages and changes to overtime rules.

The chains are proposing a 10 to 15 percent cut in wages at the top pay rates for those newly hired and an increase in the number of hours worked before an employee reaches journeyman status.

Changes in overtime rules would cut Sunday pay from time and a half to $1 per hour added to the hourly wage. Overtime would only be paid after the employee has worked 40 hours.

The employers are proposing a $1 per hour drop for current employees' health care benefits. The companies now pay $4.60 per hour toward an employees' health benefits. It would change to $3.60.

For new hires, the companies would pay 80 percent of the cost of the health benefit plan and the new employees would pay 20 percent.

"I hope they keep negotiating," said a Plateau grocery worker who requested not to be identified. "I'd rather have them keep talking. Everybody loses if we go out on strike. We never get the money back we lose. It can be really tough."

Top Foods is about to begin negotiations with the union, but has yet to join with the four chains. It has the option of signing a "me too" agreement if the dispute is settled, joining the chains or negotiating on its own.

The UFCW claims affordable health care is its top issue. Representatives are encouraging employees to continue working during negotiations.

Dennis Box can be reached at

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