Last-minute deal averts grocery strike
Unions representing local grocery employees say they have a tentative agreement after labor talks with four major chains; a vote by workers will come next.
Seattle Times staff reporters
Scott Anderson broke from his usual routine behind the deli counter at a QFC store in Edmonds on Monday afternoon and began preparing the store’s inventory for a strike.
He and thousands of other grocery-store workers in the Puget Sound region were expecting to walk off the job in protest of what they believed was an inadequate contract proposal.
Anderson and his co-workers secured the deli’s unopened meats and sliced the rest for sale because “the replacement workers wouldn’t have known how to run things,” he said.
“It was a weird day,” he added. “Waiting to strike made it hard to produce things in the deli, but we are all very relieved that we are not striking today.”
In the end, all of his preparations proved unnecessary.
Just two hours before a 7 p.m. strike deadline, union negotiators said they had reached a tentative contract deal with four of the region’s largest supermarket chains. Neither side released details of the proposed contract.
Union negotiators said they unanimously recommended the new contract, but workers still must give their approval after they review the terms. Vote meetings have yet to be arranged.
Talks between the unions and four grocery chains — Albertsons, Fred Meyer, Safeway and QFC — affected about 21,000 workers in King, Kitsap, Pierce, Snohomish, Thurston and Mason counties.
Both sides seemed eager to put the best face on their agreement and to move on from a seven-month battle.
Union spokesman Tom Geiger, who represents United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), said labor negotiators are “very pleased” with the proposed new terms, and that’s “reflected in their unanimous recommendation.”
Labor’s bargaining team included not only union leaders, but also about two dozen grocery workers, he said. The union chapters involved were Teamsters 38 and UFCW 21 and 367.
Allied Employers, which represented the companies throughout negotiations, said in a statement that the agreement “continues to preserve good wages, secure pensions and access to quality, affordable health care for our employees.”
The tentative agreement was announced shortly after 5 p.m. Monday, ending a marathon negotiating session that began last Wednesday and appeared to fall apart Friday night, when the unions gave a 72-hour strike notice.
“Not a lot of time left on that clock,” Geiger said in a phone interview late Monday. “We’re all pleased to make that accomplishment. We’re looking forward to meeting with members, and probably as early as Tuesday morning we’ll look to arrange vote meetings around the region.”
Last month, an overwhelming majority of union members voted to authorize a strike, citing concerns over a proposed wage freeze and cuts to holiday pay, sick leave and health-care benefits. Talks began last March, two months before their contract expired, and continued off and on until an escalation two weeks ago.
Earlier Monday, union workers prepared for a strike by making hundreds of picket signs with the motto “Stand Together.” Stores, meanwhile, had posted help-wanted signs for temporary replacements.
It would have been the first local grocery strike since 1989, when about 8,000 workers for Albertsons, Fred Meyer and Safeway, as well as smaller chains, walked off the job or were locked out for 11 weeks.
News of a possible strike sent some shoppers stocking up on groceries over the weekend to avoid crossing picket lines.
Rhonda Howard, a former grocery-store worker, brought her family to Albertsons in Burien to pick up food “just in case.” She said she would have shopped elsewhere in solidarity with workers if a strike were called.
“You’d pay a little more, but it would be worth it,” she said.
Both sides had plenty of financial motivation to avoid a strike: Although workers would have received $200 a week in strike pay, many would have struggled to make ends meet. Also, stores would have struggled to hold on to — and later win back — shoppers alienated by the dispute.
Grocery analyst Bill Bishop said supermarkets throughout the country were paying close attention to the talks.
He noted that over the past decade, a broad range of retailers, including Amazon.com, Target and office-supply chain Staples, had begun selling groceries, putting pressure on profit margins.
“The supermarket industry in large measure is a unionized business,” said Bishop, chief architect at retail-technology consultancy Brick Meets Click in Illinois. “It’s going through a major transformation with all the competition, so people will be watching.
At the Albertsons in Burien, workers celebrated news of the tentative agreement Monday night. “We’re good!” one excitedly told a friend outside the store.
Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or email@example.com. On Twitter: @amyemartinez
Information in this article, originally published Oct. 21, 2013, was corrected later that day. A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of Steve Marquardt in a photo caption.