Having achieved relative labor calm so far this year, the industry appears poised for more of the same during the balance of the year — a very busy one for negotiations.
Three years ago, the 141-day strike-lockout in Southern California set an anxious tone for the rounds of labor talks that followed — tempering union expectations about the kinds of terms it could expect. But the peaceful settlement in Southern California last month appears to reflect a more optimistic mood among negotiators for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the industry in other parts of the country, where negotiations are progressing well or, at worst, slowly but surely.
Union members have completed negotiations in Seattle and New Jersey, where votes are expected this week, and in St. Louis, where voting takes place next week.
In Montana, 10 months of negotiations are likely to come to a settlement — or a strike — in early September, and in Eugene, Ore., talks have progressed slowly, albeit with minimal upheavals on either side, since the contract expired in February.
Talks in Cincinnati are scheduled to begin Wednesday on a successor contract with Kroger Co. for one that expires Oct. 6; and in Northern California talks have begun with two union locals four months before the contracts there expire on Dec. 1.
Jim Papian, a spokesman for the UFCW International, told SN last week the union is taking a more systematic approach to bargaining this year by ensuring the locals are informed of broad goals. “In the old days — which was not really that many days ago — bargaining took place in specific market areas where most decisions were based on local considerations,” he said. “But with industry consolidation, the employers approach negotiations on more of a national basis, and now so do we.”
One of the union's goals this year was to eliminate the two-tier wage system in Southern California, “and we were successful in that,” Papian said. “Other goals included trying to make sure members got good wage increases and access to better health care, and we're achieving that. In general, the contracts this year have improved across the board, but conditions are changing all the time, and we want our members to get ahead of the curve to maintain good jobs.”
Chuck Cerankosky, an analyst with FTN Midwest Securities, Cleveland, said the UFCW is in a tough position that is unlikely to get any easier. “What you have in the grocery industry is a group of unionized food markets going up against a lot of competitors that remain non-union, and that's not going to change,” he explained.
“The UFCW hasn't organized anybody new, so it's going to keep going to the bargaining table with the same group of companies every few years, some of whom are closing stores, which means the union is increasingly dependent on fewer healthy companies. So the union has got to play ball with some very strong players, and in some cases it's still got to make concessions — perhaps not as many as it did three years ago in Southern California, but it's a continuing trend.”
The negotiations just completed or under way in several markets around the country include:
In Seattle, three UFCW locals reached tentative agreements last week with the three major chains, with employees scheduled to vote through tomorrow on whether to accept the new contracts. The contracts will cover more than 20,000 retail clerks at Albertsons; Kroger Co.'s Fred Meyer and QFC chains; and Safeway. Sources in the Seattle area told SN the new contract is likely to address wages and health benefits, as well as the issue of more advance notice on work scheduling.
In New Jersey and areas of southern New York, members of UFCW Local 464A are voting through Friday on a new 55-month contract covering 8,000 workers at 250 units of Foodtown, Pathmark, Shop-Rite and Stop & Shop. The previous 52-month contract expired Aug. 18. John T. Niccollai, president of the local, said journeyman butchers will get wage increases of $107 a week over the course of the contract, topping off at $1,101 a week; journeyman clerks will get increases of $100, topping off at $968 a week; and part-timers will received increases totaling $1.75 an hour. Union members will continue not having to make co-pays on health and welfare programs, and full- and part-time employees close to retirement will get an additional $50 per month, he said.
In St. Louis, voting is scheduled to conclude Sept. 5 by close to 10,000 members of UFCW Local 655 who work at 101 locations of Schnucks, Shop 'N Save and Dierbergs. The new three-year contract they're voting on would replace a 40-month contract that expired May 13. According to Jim Dougherty, president of the local, the issues included offering longer-term employees better shifts and reducing the waiting time for new employees to gain health care coverage.
In Montana, UFCW Locals 4 and 8 voted by a 97% margin earlier this month to reject the “last and best offer” from Albertsons on an agreement to replace a contract that expired Oct. 30, 2006. Negotiations are scheduled to resume during Labor Day week, and the union has set a deadline of Sept. 7 for a final offer. The negotiations involve a mix of grocery, nonfood and meat contracts at Albertsons and Kroger stores around the state, as well as some smaller retailers. Kroger withdrew from the talks in January and agreed to accept whatever terms Albertsons negotiates.
In Eugene, Ore., talks have progressed slowly since the beginning of the year on a successor to a contract that expired Feb. 17, which has been extended indefinitely, subject to 10 days' notice by either side.
After meeting only once or twice a month, the pace of negotiations may be accelerating, with at least three meetings planned for the next few weeks, Rick Ball, bargaining director for UFCW Local 555, told SN. He also said the union is hoping to get a three-year agreement to replace the expired five-year contract. The Eugene contract covers 1,150 employees at 18 stores.
In Cincinnati, negotiations are scheduled to begin Wednesday on a new contract for UFCW Local 1099 covering 75 Kroger stores. Lennie Wyatt, president of the 12,000-member local, said the issues there are “the same as the ones across the U.S., including the traditional bread-and-butter issue of wages, plus how to fund the health care plan.”
He said he expects talks to follow the pattern set by settlements locally in Detroit and Toledo, as well as in Southern California. “The settlement there three years ago set a pattern that was tough for the UFCW, and we took a hit on retiree pay and co-pays on drug cards. Our goal this year is to restore some of what we lost then,” Wyatt told SN.