- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2004

A group of clergymen from across the Washington area voted unanimously yesterday to urge their congregations to honor picket lines if 18,000 grocery workers walk out on strike later this month.

Safeway Inc. and Giant Food LLC’s contract with grocery workers represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 400 is set to expire March 27.

“We would urge members of our churches to send letters to Safeway asking them to do everything in their power to avert any kind of job action,” the Rev. Graylan Hagler, pastor of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, said after the vote by about 50 Protestant, Jewish and Muslim clergymen.

UFCW Local 400 representatives met with the clergymen at Israel Baptist Church in Northeast.

If labor negotiations fail, “we will collectively join with the workers if they do go out on strike and urge our members not to cross the picket line,” Mr. Hagler said. “Part of our spirit of religious collectivism requires us to stand with our neighbors.”

The nation’s grocery chains have become the latest battleground for unions as they struggle to maintain power in the U.S. workplace. So far, the effort has been largely disappointing for unions.

Safeway and Giant want to cut back on wages, health care benefits and pensions to compete more effectively with nonunion groceries, such as Food Lion and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Nonunion grocers often pay $8 an hour less in wages and benefits.

The nation’s longest grocery strike ended in California last month with union workers returning to their jobs with few of their demands met after 20 weeks on strike.

Clergymen, community groups and other unions supported the workers in rallies and prayer vigils. During their campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri joined union members on picket lines.

Nevertheless, with its financial reserves depleted, the UFCW agreed to a two-tier system that pays less money to new employees at the California groceries. In addition, the workers must pay a bigger part of their health care.

In New England, Stop & Shop Stores Inc. reached a similar two-tier pay and benefits agreement last month with unions representing 45,000 workers. Stop & Shop is owned by Royal Ahold NV, which also owns Giant stores.

The UFCW wants to ensure that grocery workers in the Washington and Baltimore area hold on to more of their wages and benefits.

“Those are the members of our various churches, synagogues and mosques,” the Rev. Earl Trent, pastor of Florida Avenue Baptist Church in Northeast, said about the grocery workers. “We’re hoping to support them in what they’re requesting in terms of fair pay, fair work and the whole issue of health care.”

Clergymen who attended the Israel Baptist Church meeting yesterday also represented congregations in Maryland and Virginia.

The UFCW represents an additional 10,000 Safeway and Giant workers in the Baltimore area through its Local 27. Their contract also expires March 27.

Safeway and Giant operate 325 grocery stores in the Washington and Baltimore areas, or about 70 percent of the major supermarket industry, according to Food World magazine, a Columbia, Md.-based retail grocery trade publication.

Safeway is negotiating for both grocery chains. If the Safeway workers strike, Giant officials say, they will lock out their employees until the labor dispute is resolved.

“It doesn’t help the company,” said Greg Denier, UFCW spokesman. “It certainly hurts the communities where Safeway operates.”

Safeway and Giant officials say nonunion competition leaves them with little leeway to be generous on wages and benefits.

“The fundamental problem both sides are facing is the increasing nonunion competition,” said Harry Burton, lead negotiator for Safeway and Giant.

“When you run a food operation, 60 percent of your operating costs are labor. When we lose market share, these union jobs get lost, too.”

He would not discuss details of the negotiations, but said the clergymen who voted to support the union misunderstand the situation.

“The clergymen have not talked with us,” Mr. Burton said. “If they would like to have a dialogue, we would be pleased to speak with them and explain this nonunion competition problem.”

Meanwhile, the UFCW is making preparations for a long strike. The union is printing picket signs, assigning strike captains for picket lines, setting up a strike fund and arranging for food to be given to families of grocery workers at union halls.

The AFL-CIO, a federation of the nation’s leading unions, is helping with the strike preparations.

“We supported the folks in California and we’re prepared to support these people,” said Kathleen McKirchy, community services director for the AFL-CIO Metropolitan Washington Council.

The council is enlisting support from nonprofit organizations.

“They’ll be asked to do different things, letter-writing campaigns, picket lines, boycotts,” Miss McKirchy said. “There’s a whole range of things that could be put into place, depending on what happens.”

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