As Deadline Nears, Grocery Talks Focus on Wages

Giant's Supa Tong, left, frets over costs for her family: mother Payam Dafflisio, husband Chris Sexton and daughters Sumanee Gosakwattana and Amanda Cox.
Giant's Supa Tong, left, frets over costs for her family: mother Payam Dafflisio, husband Chris Sexton and daughters Sumanee Gosakwattana and Amanda Cox. (By Mark Gail -- Post)
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By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 24, 2008

Employees like 50-year-old Supa Tong are at the heart of ongoing labor negotiations between the United Food and Commercial Workers union and the region's two largest supermarket chains, Giant and Safeway.

Tong's electrical bill reached about $500 last month. Her gas bill went up, and her neighbor said the water bill will probably rise as well. The only thing that hasn't gone up substantially is her salary from her job as a meat wrapper at Giant Food, where she has worked the past 18 years.

"How are people going to make a living?" she said, sitting at her kitchen table in Gaithersburg on a recent afternoon. "That's why I tell my kids to go to college and make a lot of money. Or you'll be dead meat."

While jobs in the heavily unionized grocery industry were once considered a reliable pathway to the middle class, nimble nonunion competitors such as Wal-Mart and Wegman's have prompted retailers to find ways to cut labor costs. Among the chief issues at the bargaining table are wage increases and the spiraling cost of health care -- and who should be responsible for paying it.

Leaders of UFCW locals 400 and 27, which represent about 23,000 members in the Baltimore and Washington regions, said Friday that no progress had been made in the month-long talks. The lead negotiator for Safeway and Giant, Harry Burton, declined to comment. Bargaining is scheduled to resume tomorrow, and the deadline for a deal is Saturday, when the current four-year contract expires. Workers are slated to vote on the contract April 1.

"The companies continue not to make any significant proposals on issues of major concern for our members," reads a post on the Web site of Local 400. "Please be prepared to fight for what you and your families deserve."

According to a source close to the talks who spoke on condition of anonymity because negotiations are ongoing, said the companies have proposed that all employees pay modest monthly premiums for their health care. Currently, most workers do not, except for part-time workers with family coverage. The union raised the possibility of a strike, but members had not voted to take such action as of last night.

A strike appeared imminent during the last round of negotiations in 2004, but the two sides reached a compromise in the final days of bargaining. Health care was a sticking point during those talks, and the union succeeded in avoiding insurance premiums. In 2004, they agreed that employees hired after the contract was signed would get reduced health benefits and holiday pay, and a slower pace of raises. After six years on the job, their benefits and raises would be governed by the same rules that apply to veteran workers.

The atmosphere is less tense than it was in 2004, when a nearly five-month strike by grocery workers in California cost retailers as much as $2 billion and affected the tone of negotiations across the country. This time, the two sides inked an agreement early this year that the union hailed for its ample wage increases and improved medical benefits.

"There's a certain amount of breathing space in terms of these negotiations," said Nelson Lichtenstein, director for the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California at Santa Barbara. But, he added, "I'm sure the executives at Giant and Safeway are still looking over their shoulder."

Supermarket chains say they are being choked by labor and health-care costs, particularly for long-time and retired workers. To bolster its bargaining power, the UFCW is conducting what it calls coordinated bargaining. A generation ago, each local negotiated contracts with the regional grocer in its market. But as supermarkets consolidate into national chains, the union said it must also increase communication and cooperation among chapters.

In a letter to members, Local 400 President Jim Lowthers said that is why he refused to submit a contract with Kroger to an employee vote in West Virginia until negotiations were completed between the chain and a UFCW local in Cincinnati. Lowthers said he also attended talks between New England chapters and Stop & Shop, a sister chain of Giant that is based in Quincy, Mass.

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