Grocery Workers Strike Averted in Washington State

grocerystrikeAfter coming to the brink of a strike against four major grocery store chains in Washington, workers reached a tentative agreement in contract negotiations, averting the anticipated strike late last night. The grocery chains include Albertsons, Fred Meyer, Safeway and QFC, and employ nearly 21,000 workers in King, Kitsap, Pierce, Snohomish, Thurston and Mason counties.

Following a seven-month battle with their employers, thousands of grocery-store workers were planning to walk off the job in protest of the previous contract proposal.  Negotiators representing the grocery unions report that they unanimously recommended the new contract last night, although the workers themselves still need to vote in approval after reviewing the terms in the next few weeks. No details from the proposed contract have yet been released.

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) spokesman Tom Geiger stated that labor negotiators were “very pleased” with the proposed new terms, which is “clearly reflected in their unanimous recommendation.”

On the other end, Allied Employers represented the four grocery companies throughout negotiations; an AE spokesperson released a statement claiming that the agreement “continues to preserve good wages, secure pensions and access to quality, affordable health care for our employees.”

In September, an overwhelming majority of the union members had voted in approval of the strike. According to employment attorneys and workers compensation lawyers, workers were alarmed by a proposed wage freeze as well as cuts to holiday pay, sick leave and health-care benefits. There had also been an increasing number of disputes over workers compensation benefits, with many workers reporting that they had to appeal L&I claims multiple times before receiving compensation. Talks over these issues started last March — two months before the existing contract expired — and have continued off and on until the situation escalated two weeks ago.

Yesterday, union workers spent the afternoon preparing for a strike by making hundreds of picket signs displaying their motto “Stand Together.” Meanwhile, the grocery stores had posted help-wanted signs for temporary replacements in anticipation of losing their regular work force.

This would have been the first local grocery strike since 1989, when nearly 8,000 workers employed at Safeway, Albertsons, Fred Meyer and a few smaller chains, walked off the job or were locked out for 11 weeks.

Grocery analyst Bill Bishop noted that other supermarkets across the U.S. were paying close attention to the talks in Washington State. Over the past ten years, he explained, a range of retailers including Amazon.com, Target, and even the office-supply chain Staples, have started selling groceries, which has placed pressure on the traditional industry’s 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 QFC on Capitol Hill in Seattle, workers celebrated news of the agreement Monday night.  One young employee excitedly told a friend outside the store: “We’re good!”

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Emery Reddy