- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 15, 2001

The Washington area's two major grocery chains have reached contract agreements with unions that had threatened to leave Giant Food's and Safeway's 300 local supermarkets with no food on the shelves.

The 2,700 Teamsters union members ratified the second of two contracts Sunday that will give them as much as $5-per-hour wage increases.

"We're proud of both of them," said Teamsters Local 639 President John Catlett. "We made pretty significant gains in wages and the economic package in general."

The five-year agreements, both reached in the past week, affect mostly truck drivers and warehouse and distribution-center workers. Safeway operates about 130 stores in the Washington area and Giant about 170.

New employees will get as much as $5 an hour more, while senior workers will get a 75 cent-per-hour raise. Under the old contract, starting pay for the workers was $13.50 per hour.

The workers also can achieve top-pay status in shorter periods of time. The deal lets the companies schedule more flexible hours for employees to meet the demands of their workloads.

Union members say they were ready to strike as soon as this week if an agreement was not reached. Both Teamsters Local 639 truck drivers and Local 730 of the warehousemen voted to authorize strikes.

"We were coordinating our negotiations," Mr. Catlett said. The Giant and Safeway distribution workers planned to respect each others' picket lines.

"It would have caused disruption, that's for sure," Mr. Catlett said.

The agreement does not cover any of Safeway's 11,000 grocery employees in the Washington area. Safeway contracts its distribution service from its warehouse in Upper Marlboro to Brattleboro, Vt.-based Collington Services LLC, a food-distribution company that employs about 600 truck drivers and warehouse workers in the Washington area.

"We went down to a strike vote," said Kim Robinson, a Collington Services truck driver. "Everyone agreed to it. Giant was willing to stand behind us and we were willing to stand behind them."

The Giant distribution centers in Landover and Jessup, Md., provide a warehouse and truck distribution network for Maryland, Northern Virginia, Delaware and New Jersey.

Al York, a truck driver for Giant, said Giant Food stores throughout the region would have been hurt by a strike.

"I don't think they were prepared to fight another strike in the Baltimore-Washington corridor," Mr. York said. "The competition is tough."

Giant's truck drivers and warehousemen went on strike for five weeks in 1997 over job-security issues.

Union members said they had been organizing campaign rallies in front of Giant and Safeway warehouses until Sunday's agreement.

Spokesmen for Giant and Collington Services described the labor dispute as routine.

Eric Weiss, Giant's vice president of labor relations, disagreed that a major strike was narrowly averted.

"I believe the negotiations were conducted in a professional, businesslike fashion," he said. The union's concession of allowing Giant to schedule flexible work hours would save the company money, he said.

"Both sides achieved parts, if not all, of what they were striving for," Mr. Weiss said.

Bill Hamlin, Collington Services spokesman, said the company was pleased with the agreement.

When negotiations appeared to stall in March, Teamsters President James P. Hoffa attended a rally in Washington with Local 730 workers. He predicted a strike could stop the distribution of food to local grocery stores.


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