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Western Union Disputes Drag On

Members of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 7 at Safeway and two Kroger-owned chains here are scheduled to conclude voting tomorrow on a contract offer they are likely to reject. It would mark the third time in several months the membership has rejected an offer. However, while Safeway employees were voting on whether to authorize a strike, workers at Kroger-owned King Soopers

DENVER — Members of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 7 at Safeway and two Kroger-owned chains here are scheduled to conclude voting tomorrow on a contract offer they are likely to reject.

It would mark the third time in several months the membership has rejected an offer.

However, while Safeway employees were voting on whether to authorize a strike, workers at Kroger-owned King Soopers and City Markets were voting only on whether to accept the offer, with no strike authorization included.

The contracts between 17,000 workers across Colorado and Kroger, Safeway and Albertsons LLC expired Sept. 12. Negotiations have been under way since early April.

Negotiations in Arizona by UFCW Local 99, representing 15,000 members at Safeway and Kroger-owned Fry's and Smith's, are moving forward even more slowly. Those contracts expired Oct. 25, 2008.

Members in metropolitan Phoenix and Tucson have already voted to authorize a strike, Jim McLaughlin, a Local 99 spokesman, told SN, “but we have another 30 areas of the state that would have to vote before we would consider a strike.”

However, the union could reach out for consumer pledges of support to pressure the chains if it chooses not to strike in the short term, McLaughlin said.

He said the employers gave the union their latest proposals in August, “which included significant economic takeaways, and that has prompted us to move more quickly toward seeking a conclusion,” he noted.

However, no talks had been scheduled going into this week, he said. Asked if the situation is anywhere close to the 11th hour, McLaughlin replied, “We're probably at the 10-and-a-half-hour point.”

Things may be moving a little more quickly in Denver.

Laura Chapin, a union spokeswoman, said last week that members of Local 7 have been voting overwhelmingly to reject the industry's offer, though she declined to pinpoint the percentage. She also declined to indicate what might happen next.

“That's up to the corporations,” she told SN last week. “They have not yet given us a ‘last, best and final’ offer.”

Speaking for the Colorado and Wyoming King Soopers and City Markets, Diane Mulligan, principal at Mulligan & Co., a strategic communications consultant based in Centennial, Colo., said Kroger does not anticipate a strike, even if the contract proposal is rejected. “No one wants a strike, especially in the current economic situation,” she noted.

King Soopers and City Markets operate a total of 130 stores, employing nearly 60% of Local 7's members.

Mulligan said Safeway and Kroger have a written mutual strike assistance agreement that if one banner is struck, the other has the option to lock out its workers. She also said Kroger has identified 3,500 temporary workers, if needed, “though we hope we never have to hire a single one of them.”

A Safeway spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Boise, Idaho-based Albertsons LLC has historically waited for Safeway and King Soopers to reach an agreement before it begins negotiations, sources told SN. Albertsons LLC could not be reached for comment.

Safeway employees have already voted at 25 area meetings since Sept. 19, with additional meetings scheduled today and tomorrow before voting is completed. Workers at King Soopers and City Markets both concluded voting last Thursday.

Among the main points of contention in the negotiations are the two-tier wage system the union agreed to in the 2004 contract, which it wants to eliminate; a guarantee that health care premiums will not increase and that benefits will not decrease; and a variety of pension issues.

Mulligan told SN the Kroger contract offer includes maintenance of the two-tier system; wage increases for 65% of journeyman clerks; full medical coverage for the families of part-time workers after a year of service; a $40 million infusion to stabilize the pension fund; and a raise in the minimum retirement age from 50 to 55.