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Grocery Unions Prep For Strike As Talks Heat Up

KUOW Photo/Bond Huberman
A Safeway in Seattle's University District advertises checker positions ahead of a possible worker strike.

As they debate their contracts, grocery workers insist they’re serious about striking: Picket captains have been tapped at hundreds of stores throughout the region, and strike headquarters have popped up in five counties.

About 10,000 picket sticks have arrived at union headquarters, and workers are now madly stapling signs to them and covering them with plastic sheeting in case of rain. Their supporters, meanwhile, have launched an aggressive social media campaign, creating a map with grocery stores not involved in the dispute andgenerating 14,000 “likes” on Facebook.

The grocery store chains – Safeway, Fred Meyer, QFC and Albertson’s – say they mean business, too: Some are hiring clerks at $12 an hour in case of a possible labor dispute. A Safeway in the University District advertised for temporary replacement workers.

But both sides say the other is posturing, trying to intimidate the other into giving in.

“They’re trying their best to prepare where there may be a dispute, and at the same time, it’s quite frankly an intimidation tactic to people who have voted to go on strike,” said Tom Geiger, spokesman for UFCW 21.

Scott Powers, the lead negotiator for the grocery chains, noted that the last time grocery workers voted to strike was in 2010, when the last contract expired. Workers didn’t end up striking, and a contract was decided by November.

Talks between the three big unions – Teamsters 38 and UFCW 21 and 367 -- resumed Wednesday morning. Negotiators met for four days last week through Sunday, when union leaders asked for several days to examine the proposals.    

“It felt like we were making some progress,” Geiger said before the start of Wednesday talks.

Health care has been a sticking point, according to the unions. They say the grocery chains want to move employees working fewer than 30 hours a week to government health exchanges. The unions also say the employers refuse to increase wages and want to stop paying time-and-a-half on holidays.

Negotiations started in March, just months before most of the contracts expired. Talks have become heated as more than 20,000 workers have since voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike.

This means that if union leaders grow tired of the negotiations, they could call for a strike. They would have 72 hours to dissolve their existing contracts – extensions of the ones that expired – before hitting the picket lines. Likewise, the grocery stores would have to warn the workers if they plan to close the stores.

More than 1,000 workers in Mason and Thurston counties authorized a strike on Tuesday, bringing the total number of those covered by the strike to about 22,000. That doesn’t include those who are still working under contracts that haven’t yet expired.

Most of those other workers are in Whatcom, Skagit and Grays Harbor counties, where employers of independent chains have agreed to adopt the contracts agreed to by the big chains.

Workers at those independent chains would not strike, Geiger said.

Those are the grocery stores listed on a map created by Stand With Our Checkers, the site set up three weeks ago by union organizers and community leaders. But some of the grocery stores listed on their map aren’t unionized.

“Our preference is that if there were a dispute, shoppers would go to grocery stores that aren’t affected by the dispute,” Geiger said. “At this point, it would be those independents, but that might not be a practical solution.”

The map does not include Whole Foods and Walmart, according to a spokeswoman for Stand With Our Checkers, because the unions view both chains as anti-labor.

The last major grocery strike in Western Washington was in 1989 and lasted 81 days. Ten thousand workers walked off the job or were locked out.