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Safeway Workers in Limbo

An already difficult contract negotiation spiraled into further chaos last week when workers in Colorado turned down a contract offer from Safeway but accepted a virtually identical deal from King Soopers. It was unclear late last week what the next step would be for workers at Safeway, who according to United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 rejected a last, best and final offer from Safeway.

DENVER — An already difficult contract negotiation spiraled into further chaos last week when workers in Colorado turned down a contract offer from Safeway — but accepted a virtually identical deal from King Soopers.

It was unclear late last week what the next step would be for workers at Safeway, who according to United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 rejected a “last, best and final” offer from Safeway. The contract, the union said, was rejected by 63% — less than the two-thirds majority workers would need to authorize a strike. Although some voting units also voted to authorize a strike, “at this point the workers' hope is that Safeway will return to the bargaining table,” Local 7 said in a statement.

Safeway might be unwilling to do that, however, especially if it means creating a cost imbalance between it and Kroger-owned King Soopers, its largest rival in Colorado. King Soopers workers approved their contract — said to be identical to Safeway's offer — by 66%, the union said.

Kris Staaf, a Denver-based spokeswoman for Safeway, told SN last week that the company had not received a formal accounting of the voting results. Workers have rejected Safeway's contract offers four times since bargaining for a new deal began in April. Their previous agreement expired in May.

Local 7's leverage may also be limited by the UFCW International in Washington. That group refused to provide authorization for workers to strike Safeway after they had turned down a third contract offer. The International instead prompted employers to present a “last, best and final” deal.

In a statement last week, the International said it would work with Local 7 “to explore all options to reach the best outcome for UFCW Safeway members and all Local 7 members.” A union spokesman told SN that may include further negotiations, another vote or a strike.

The International noted in its statement that the King Soopers contract provided workers with “pay increases, a ratification bonus, measures to preserve pensions and affordable health care.”

Contract negotiations in Denver have historically been challenging, owing in part to Local 7's unusual strategy of bargaining with hundreds of representatives at a time. A similar contract dispute between Local 7 and employers in 2004 ended when the International stepped in and negotiated on the local's behalf following a stalemate with employers. This year, Local 7 was also contending with some internal strife culminating in a September vote to oust longtime President Ernest Duran and 19 of 25 members of its board of directors when their terms end Jan. 1.