- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Safeway and Giant grocery workers overwhelmingly approved a new labor contract yesterday, averting a strike set for today.

Under the four-year contract, they will pay more for some health care benefits and some new employees will be paid at a slightly lower rate, but workers will receive $1.25-per-hour pay raises spread over four years.

Negotiations continued until Monday, a day before yesterday’s midnight strike deadline, and were snagged primarily on who would pay for spiraling health care costs.

“The major sticking point is health care,” C. James Lowthers, president of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 400, said after the vote yesterday at the D.C. Armory. “You can’t solve this problem at the bargaining table.”

Giant and Safeway stores were closed from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. yesterday during the vote. Afterward, they returned to their normal operating hours.

In the end, the potential for a disastrous strike by 28,000 grocery workers in the Washington and Baltimore areas compelled management and the workers to reach an agreement, Mr. Lowthers said.

“The companies were aware of the potential losses they could take,” he said.

Safeway and two other grocery chains lost an estimated $2 billion during a 20-week strike in Southern California involving similar contract issues, according to industry analysts. It ended Feb. 29, when workers ratified a new agreement that granted them only some of their demands.

Concerns about a similar standoff overshadowed negotiations in Washington.

“I think it put pressure on the company and the workers,” Mr. Lowthers said. “I don’t think either side was interested in a repeat of what happened in Southern California.”

Said Teresa Murgin, a meat department worker at a Giant store in Clinton: “I wish we’d done better, but I guess we have to take what we can get. It beats unemployment and being on strike.”

Workers will pay a $200 deductible for health care instead of the previous $100. They will pay as much as $4,000 for nondeductible medical expenses, up from $2,500.

New employees will receive the time-and-a-half pay other workers already get for working Sundays and holidays after their fifth year of employment. They also will pay a $300 deductible for health care. The same family health-coverage benefits of experienced employees would begin for new employees after six years of service.

“The biggest gain that means the most to people is that the company will pay the full cost of benefit premiums for the next four years,” Mr. Lowthers said.

Premiums refer to the amount of money employees contribute toward health care and other benefits.

In addition, company pension contributions will increase from 15 cents per hour to 87 cents per hour.

Negotiators for Safeway Inc. and Giant Food LLC demanded wage and benefit concessions to be able to compete effectively against nonunion stores, such as Food Lion and Wal-Mart. They typically pay employees at lower rates than unionized groceries.

“The objective of these negotiations was to design ways of managing labor costs in response to the changing competitive realities of the retail food industry,” Harry Burton, chief negotiator for Giant and Safeway, said in a statement.

The votes at the D.C. Armory for Washington-area workers and the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium for Baltimore-area employees were counted in rough numbers by employees standing to register their vote on the contract.

Of the roughly 7,500 Giant Food LLC workers who voted at the D.C. Armory, only about 200 stood against the agreement. Of the estimated 4,000 Safeway workers, only about a dozen stood to vote against it. All others stood in favor of the four-year contract.

Similar wide margins of approval were counted in Baltimore.

“I’m very well-satisfied with the very little that we had to give up,” said Louis Shapiro, a seafood clerk at a Giant store in Arlington. “We’re still very well paid for the industry. Nobody wins in a strike.”

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