Possible grocery strike stuck in limbo

October 29, 2009

Unionized grocery workers in Colorado are questioning why their international union has not yet approved a strike against Safeway despite assurances last week by a top international official that it would be granted “in a day or two.”

A posting on the Web site of United Food and Commercial Workers union Local 7 asks “Why has the international union not yet granted final strike sanction?” after stating that “all of the requirements set out by the international union have been met.” The posting refers to requirements included in a Sept. 15 letter sent to Local 7 President Ernest Duran from UFCW President Joseph Hansen that included a vote of Local 7’s members at Safeway and a formal request from Local 7 for approval.

Local 7’s bargaining committee sought the approval after talks with Safeway and King Soopers broke down Oct. 20, the only negotiating session after more than 90 percent of union members voted to reject “final” offers from both chains and authorize a strike against Safeway.

Kevin Williamson, UFCW’s vice president and regional director, told the union’s negotiating committee Oct. 20 that the strike “could be authorized in a day or two” and “recognized all of the necessary paperwork and requirements were submitted to him,” according to the posting.

Hansen’s letter included some caveats. He called Local 7 bargaining methods, which involve a 200-person bargaining committee, “unique and non-traditional” and stated that Local 7 must resume talks if it learns that “additional bargaining may resolve the matters at issue,” even if the strike has already been approved. He also added he and UFCW Secretary-Treasurer Anthony Perrone believe that “pension issues in particular are best addressed through a negotiated settlement.”

The letter also warns that “failure to seek a negotiated settlement prior to engaging in a strike will ultimately impact (Local 7’s) final strike authorization,” which Hansen said in the letter must come from Williamson, who heads a regional office based near Chicago.

Local 7 spokesman Laura Chapin said Thursday that the union posted the item on its Web page because members were asking about the strike. Jim Papian, a UFCW official in Washington, D.C., and could not be reached by telephone Thursday and did not respond to an e-mail message sent Thursday seeking comment.

In 2004, Hansen halted and then voided strike votes in Colorado, saying the grocers’ offer called for more concessions than union members elsewhere had accepted. He also sought federal mediation to reopen talks and later called a contract drawn up by a federal mediator “a major improvement” over previous offers even though the union’s bargaining committee recommended rejection. Union members ratified the five-year contract that expired earlier this year, though they continue to work under its terms.

Any strike would be the first since the union staged a 42-day walkout against King Soopers in 1996, triggering a lockout of union members by Safeway. Both chains have agreed to lock out workers if the union goes on strike against the other, and both have been advertising for temporary replacement workers who would be hired only if the union launches a strike. Local 7 represents 17,000 workers in Colorado and Wyoming at Albertsons, King Soopers and Safeway, including more than 1,700 in the Colorado Springs area.

An arbitrator has scheduled hearings for Dec. 16-18 to hear arguments from the union and representatives from the three chains on whether to cut benefits and future accruals from an underfunded pension plan, which has been a major issue on contract talks.

Contact the writer at 636-0234

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