Sunday, June 13, 2004

Bracing for a strike
My part of the country is bracing for a contract confrontation between the same antagonists that led to the California grocery strike last winter. Since that strike the three national grocery chains, Safeway, Albertson’s, and Kroger’s, have negotiated a number of contracts with local grocery unions. In each case the chains have offered essentially the same deal that was offered in California. In Western Washington the contracts expired at the end of April, and negotiations have carried on while the workers continue to work under the old contract.
Negotiators have extended talks for a new labor contract at the Puget Sound region's four largest grocery chains into early July, delaying the prospect of a possible strike or lockout.

The current contract, which had been set to expire in early May, has been extended twice in the past month as the two sides bargain over health benefits and wages for more than 16,000 workers at Safeway, Albertsons, QFC and Fred Meyer.

QFC and Fred Meyer grocery stores are owned by Kroger, The third national chain involved in the California strike.
Late last week, representatives of the grocery chains and the United Food and Commercial Workers extended the contract for three more weeks and agreed to meet six more times, with talks resuming Monday and scheduled to continue through July 7.


As in California, the key issue is health-care costs, which the group of employers says have jumped more than 73 percent since the last contract was negotiated in 2001. The companies pay 100 percent of workers' health-care premiums. Employees cover co-pays and deductibles.

The grocers' initial proposal for the new contract called for employees to pay a share of their health-care premiums.

It also proposed a two-tier salary system in which new employees would be paid less than veterans. Union officials said the proposal amounted to $500 million in cuts over the three-year contract.

On Friday, the UFCW submitted a counterproposal that it said would save companies $120 million by, among other things, increasing employees' co-pays and assigning new hires to an HMO for their first year of coverage.

"It's a start — and a good start," said Melinda Merrill, a spokeswoman for the grocery chains. "Their proposal acknowledges that there needs to be changes, and that really is encouraging. The employers still want to explore ways to lower the cost of health benefits, but this is a good step."

Sharon McCann, president of UFCW Local 1105, said she is disappointed that the grocery chains haven't embraced the union's latest offer or amended their initial proposal.

Merrill, the spokeswoman for the grocery chains, makes it sound like they are thoughtfully considering the union’s offer, but I notice they have turned up the pressure on the employees in the stores. For about two weeks the chains have been advertising to hire scab workers. Seattle has higher than average unemployment so they probably have no trouble finding takers. Today I went to my neighborhood QFC to pick up a few things and saw a sign, prominently placed in the aisle where it was visible from the checkstands advertising for hire scab workers to apply with the store manager.

My first though was that this is a pretty crude intimidation tactic. I still think it is, but there is an uglier, more subtle element. Most of the management in the stores (as opposed to at the corporate offices) is made up of people promoted from the ranks. These people have far stronger ties to the union employees than to the owners and corporate staff who they hardly ever see. Having the store managers interview scabs where the union employees can see them, serves to separate the two groups of store workers even before the strike.
Fortunately, the union is not without its own resources.
The strike and the picket line are labor's best-known tools for exerting pressure on employers in a contract negotiation. But the strike (or, from an employers' point of view, the lockout) is a high-risk proposition; once workers walk out (or are locked out) the dispute takes on an unpredictable momentum beyond the control of either party, with the potential for disaster for both. In such cases strikes aren't ended by negotiation so much as they're ended by exhaustion on both sides, who are left to convince themselves and the public that they didn't lose as much as the other guy.

The picket line is meant to convey a message to the public of the workers' cause and to deter the public from patronizing the business. But a good portion of the public these days, not belonging to a union or not having grown up in the tradition, is indifferent to the picket line; another segment is openly hostile toward unions and their cause.


The me-too agreement isn't a cure-all for these problems. But it does have some attractions that make it intriguing to labor unions such as the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents grocery store employees.
Me-too agreements work like this: In situations where there are contracts covering multiple employers in the same industry expiring at roughly the same time, the union and some of those employers will negotiate a sort of contract in advance. That contract says that the union won't strike those employers should there be a walkout. In turn, those employers agree to offer to their workers whatever is the industrywide or regionwide settlement agreed to by the largest employers.

UFCW locals in the Puget Sound region have been announcing me-too agreements with such smaller chains and independents as Town & Country Markets (Ballard, Greenwood and Shoreline Central markets), Metropolitan Markets, Market Place, Thriftway, Red Apple and Market Place stores.

For unions, me-toos have the attraction of preserving whatever benefits there are to multiemployer bargaining (keeping everyone at roughly the same wage scale) with whatever leverage can be extracted from a divide-and-conquer approach. In negotiations such as the grocery industry, local and regional labor unions are going up against national operations (Kroger, Safeway, Albertsons). The notion that their competitors will be operating unfettered while they're being struck may be a counterbalance to that disparity of size.

For the smaller grocery operations who agree to me-toos, the benefits include being able to operate without the cost and hassle of a strike should one occur, and maybe even pick up some new customers.

Two of the smaller chains have branches close to my home. My normal shopping habit is to spread the wealth around, so I know these stores well and will have no problem transferring the portion of my business that QFC gets to the others. The only question is, if it comes to a strike would I ever transfer my business back to QFC afterwards.

Cross posted at From the Trenches.

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