- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2004

Negotiators for Safeway and Giant grocery stores reached a tentative agreement with their workers yesterday that has the support of union leaders.

The workers are scheduled to vote today on whether to ratify the agreement.

“It will be a ratification vote as opposed to a strike vote,” a source close to the negotiations said. “The local unions will recommend ratification.”

Until the agreement yesterday, workers represented by Local 400 and Local 27 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) planned to vote on whether to go on strike when their current labor contract expires tonight.

A simple majority vote is needed to ratify the agreement, but a two-thirds majority is required for a strike.

Although terms of the agreement were not disclosed, union representatives say it is likely to avert a work stoppage for the companies, 28,000 employees in the Washington and Baltimore areas and their customers.

Together, Safeway and Giant control 70 percent of the area’s major supermarket industry with about 325 stores.

Safeway posted a message on in its Web site for employees that said, “After weeks of negotiations, Safeway and Giant have given the union our settlement offer. Union leadership will present the offer to its membership at meetings scheduled for Tuesday, March 30.”

Giant posted a similar message for its employees.

Company officials refused to speculate on the outcome of the vote today at the D.C. Armory.

“We’ll see tomorrow, when the employees are going to vote,” Safeway spokesman Greg TenEyck said yesterday.

Safeway and Giant stores will be closed for grocery shopping from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. today while employees vote. The pharmacies will remain open. The automated teller machines will be available at Giant stores but not Safeway stores.

Officials at Local 400, which represents 18,000 Safeway and Giant employees in the Washington area, did not return phone calls.

The UFCW made preparations for a massive strike that included picket lines and enlisting support from nonprofit groups and other unions.

“Those are on hold until we hear otherwise,” said a union representative who asked not to be identified.

News of the tentative agreement brought relief to grocery management, workers and customers at the Safeway store at 1601 Maryland Avenue NE.

“I would really like it because then I wouldn’t have to go on unemployment and be out of work,” said Carolyn Anthony, a clerk who spoke while totaling up a customer’s bill on a cash register.

Martin Holder, the store’s manager, said: “That would be great. It’s just a lot less headaches than having replacement workers in the stores during a strike.”

Some customers said a strike would have been successful in stopping them from shopping at Safeway and Giant.

“I would not have broken the picket line,” said Sherrie Baldwin, a Northeast resident. “I would have gone elsewhere. Working-class people need to have their benefits supported.”

V.T. Locksley, another D.C. resident, said she shops at Safeway “all the time.”

However, a strike might have made her look for alternatives.

“I think I would have,” Mrs. Locksley said. “It all depends on whether I really had to have something.”

Safeway and Giant demanded reductions in workers’ health benefits, wages and pensions to compete with nonunion grocery stores such as Food Lion and Wal-Mart. They wanted to institute a two-tier pay scale that paid entry-level employees at a lower rate than more experienced workers.

Labor accounts for 60 percent of Safeway and Giant’s costs, company officials said.

Similar issues prompted a five-month strike in Southern California against Safeway and other grocery chains that ended Feb. 29 when workers reluctantly ratified an agreement that included the two-tier pay system.

They said their resources were depleted during the longest grocery strike in U.S. history.

Industry analysts estimate the three grocery chains involved in the California strike lost $2 billion. Safeway posted a fourth quarter 2003 loss of $700 million.

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