UNION: WAL-MART INFLUENCES LABOR NEGOTIATIONS

SPOKANE, Wash. -- The president of the local supermarket union here said retailers in central Washington will have to find another way to compete with Wal-Mart instead of scaling back benefits for employees.Last week, Local 1439 of the United Food and Commercial Workers filed notice that this Friday it could terminate the contract extensions that nearly 1,600 of its members had been working under,

SPOKANE, Wash. -- The president of the local supermarket union here said retailers in central Washington will have to find another way to compete with Wal-Mart instead of scaling back benefits for employees.

Last week, Local 1439 of the United Food and Commercial Workers filed notice that this Friday it could terminate the contract extensions that nearly 1,600 of its members had been working under, and the members could go on strike. The union is negotiating with a group of four supermarket chains -- Albertsons, Safeway, Fred Meyer and Top Foods -- that have collective contracts with the union.

Sue Bonnett, president, Local 1439, said the supermarkets are seeking to reduce health coverage and make changes to other benefits, including making it more difficult to accrue sick days and vacation time, so the supermarkets can better compete with an anticipated influx of Wal-Mart supercenters and other nonunion employers in the area.

"They're trying to make Wal-Mart the bogeyman," she said. "These nationwide chains are still profitable. We believe there's cost containment that can be done without being destructive to the employees."

Bonnett said no progress was made during negotiations earlier this month. Additional labor negotiations are scheduled for this week.

She said the union is willing to "look at options" on reducing health-insurance costs, but it also wants the new contract to guarantee a minimum percentage of jobs that are full time.

The supermarkets are seeking to create a longer "tunnel," or waiting period, before employees become eligible for certain benefits. The retailers are seeking to switch the employees to a different health plan and have workers pay for part of any future increases in the costs of the program, according to Scott Klitzke Powers, negotiator, Allied Employers, Kirkland, Wash., which represents the supermarket chains.

"Of all the costs that these employers have, labor is the line item that is growing the fastest," he said, noting that the costs have nearly doubled during the three years of the recently expired contracts.

He also noted that the retailers' proposals would only affect new hires, not current members.

He said Wal-Mart Stores' recently announced plans to build a massive food-distribution center in Grandview, Wash., indicated that the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer is planning a large-scale buildup of supercenters in the area.

"They are going to come whole hog into this part of the country," he said.