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Portland, Ore., grocery workers authorize strike

Kroger Co., Albertsons Cos. also face possible strike in Southern California

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 grocery employees in the Portland, Ore., area this week voted to authorize a strike against Fred Meyer, QFC, Albertsons and Safeway.

The move came just days after seven UFCW locals in Southern California, representing about 46,000 workers, gave union leaders permission to call a strike, if necessary, at Ralphs, Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions supermarkets.

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Albertsons Cos. operates Albertsons, Safeway, Vons and Pavilions stores, while the Fred Meyer, QFC and Ralphs stores are part of The Kroger Co.

UFCW 555, whose membership covers Oregon and southwestern Washington, said the vote only includes Portland-area workers. In announcing the result on July 1, the union noted that voting will continue across its coverage area in July and August, and a final decision won’t be made until that process is completed.

Members have delivered petitions to store management in the union’s jurisdiction that request “an equitable wage increase that makes it possible for us to live in our communities and buy groceries at our stores,” UFCW 555 said. However, contract negotiations haven’t progressed despite more than a year of talks, the union reported.

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“The employers seem to be under the impression that our members will be thrilled with increases of nickels and dimes. I, along with our member-comprised bargaining team, believe our hard-working members deserve much, much more,” UFCW 555 President Dan Clay said in a statement. “A strike vote identifies where our membership stands on this issue. We are demonstrating that we stand together, united, and very ready to fight as hard as we must for what we deserve.”

UFCW 555 also pointed to what it called a “massive gap in pay equity” between men and women at Fred Meyer stores. The local said that, in the stores’ two-tier wage structure, the most common male hourly wage is 27% higher than the most common female wage, a difference of $3.70. In addition, the union said Fred Meyer’s own data shows that women hold most of the lower-paying jobs.

“The working class in our country work too hard to be living in their cars and store break rooms. No one with a job (or two) should be eligible for food stamps, and yet these employers pay so little that many UFCW members are put in the position of needing to access government benefits in order to feed their families,” stated Jeff Anderson, secretary-treasurer of UFCW 555.

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Kroger’s Fred Meyer and QFC divisions didn’t respond to a request for comment. Boise, Idaho-based Albertsons Cos. said it will continue talks to reach a mutually beneficial agreement with the Portland-area workers.

“Our focus remains on the negotiations, which is what will determine the final outcome of the contract,” Albertsons said in a statement. “Our goal is a contract that benefits the employees, the companies and the customers.”

Last week in Southern California, UFCW Locals 770, 324, 1167, 135, 8, 1428 and 1442 representing grocery workers at more than 500 Ralphs, Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions stores gave union leaders the authority to call a strike if talks with the supermarket chains fail to make progress. Negotiations are slated to resume July 10. The employees have worked under a contract extension since a three-year agreement expired in March.

On July 1, the Los Angeles Federation of Labor voted to support Southern California grocery store employees in the event of a strike. As a result, the federation’s member unions — representing about 800,000 workers in Los Angeles County — would boycott the Ralphs, Vons and Albertsons stores.

“If workers are forced to go on strike, our members and their families will not cross the picket line,” Rusty Hicks, president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, told the Los Angeles Daily News.

At Kroger’s annual shareholders meeting last week, Chairman and CEO Rodney McMullen highlighted the Cincinnati-based company’s investment compensation, training and education for its workforce, including store associates.

“We are supporting associates in a wide variety of ways, including more than $0.5 billion invested in raising wages, enhancing training and developing leaders. I am pleased to share our recently updated average hourly rate is now over $20 per hour with comprehensive benefits factored in, benefits that many of our competitors don't offer. As a result of our investments in talent development through Restock Kroger, we are significantly improving employee retention in one of the tightest labor markets in years,” McMullen told shareholders.

“Transforming from a grocery company to a growth company means we will need a flexible workforce with new skills and knowledge,” he added. “We are securing Kroger's continued success in the next chapter of retail by encouraging lifelong education through Feed Your Future, our industry-leading education assistance program. We've had more than 2,500 associates received funds pursuing every type of credential from GEDs to PhDs. Among all participants, more than 80% are hourly store associates.”

Last month, Kroger’s Central Division store associates in Indiana ratified a new labor contract with UFCW Local 700. The pact, which covers about 9,500 employees, raises starting wages to $10 an hour for most clerks, and associates will get regular wage increases every six months, Kroger said.

“The most recent example of our investments in wages was our [June 17] announcement of a newly ratified labor contract covering store associates in Indianapolis,” said Gary Millerchip, Kroger chief financial officer, in a June 20 conference call on the company’s first-quarter results. “This is part of our continued effort to rebalance pay and benefits while also focusing on certifications and performance incentives, career opportunities and training.”

Also during the first quarter, Kroger ratified new labor contracts with the UFCW for King Soopers associates in Denver and Kroger associates in Louisville, Ky., and the retailer is negotiating with the union for contracts covering store associates in Las Vegas, Memphis, Portland, Seattle and Southern California, Millerchip reported.

“Our objective in every negotiation is to find a fair and reasonable balance between competitive costs and compensation packages that provide solid wages, good quality affordable health care and retirement benefits for our associates. We continue to strive to make our overall benefits package relevant to today's associates,” he said in the call. “Our financial results continue to be pressured by inefficient health care and pension costs, which some of our competitors do not face. We continue to communicate with our local unions and the international unions which represent many of our associates on the importance of growing our business in a profitable way, which will help us create more jobs and career opportunities and enhance job security for our associates.”

 

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