Correction: This story has been updated to correct the deadline for contract negotiations between the union representing Giant and Safeway employees and the companies. The deadline was extended to Dec. 20, not Dec. 15.
The union representing nearly 17,000 Giant and Safeway employees in the Washington area said Tuesday that it would delay a vote on a new labor contract after months of tense negotiations that have focused on escalating health-care costs.
Union members were originally set to vote on a proposed contract Wednesday. But late Tuesday afternoon, the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union said the two parties had extended the deadline for an agreement to Dec. 20.
This is the second time the contract, which expired Oct. 31, has been extended.
Contract negotiations have been ongoing for several weeks. Union members have held a series of protests — even flash mobs — at area stores to draw attention to their demands: higher wages, health-care benefits and job security.
Lengthy delays and extensions during collective bargaining have become the norm, Mark P. Federici, president of UFCW Local 400, said in a letter to Washington area members. It took more than seven months, for example, for Seattle area unions to reach an agreement with Safeway.
“I don’t anticipate it will take us that long, but this is the environment in which our negotiations are taking place,” Federici said.
A key, this time, has been health-care costs. Under the contract that went into effect last spring, many unionized Giant and Safeway workers have health insurance that doesn’t require any out-of-pocket costs.
“Like virtually all negotiations taking place around the country today, the number one obstacle to reaching agreement is the impact of the Affordable Care Act,” Federici said.
The union will have informational meetings for Giant and Safeway employees at 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. Wednesday.
“As always, our focus is on securing a fair and reasonable contract that . . . honors our associates’ contribution, while also recognizing our competitive realities,” said Jamie Miller, a spokesman for Landover-based Giant.
The number of unionized grocery stores in the Washington area has been on the decline.
Thirty years ago, nine out of the 10 largest supermarket chains in the area were unionized. Today, that number has whittled down to four: Giant, Safeway, Shoppers Food Warehouse and Costco.
Private-sector union membership has fallen across the nation to 6.6 percent of the workforce from 11.2 percent 20 years ago.