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Deadline Looms for Supermarket Contracts in Baltimore-Washington Area

BALTIMORE -- Giant and Safeway supermarkets in the Baltimore-Washington area, as well as the union representing 29,000 of their employees, are facing a Tuesday deadline for a new contract -- and the possibility of a strike that could affect hundreds of local supermarkets and prompt thousands of workers to join picket lines, the Baltimore Sun reports.

Safeway, Inc. and Giant Food, Inc. are negotiating together with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents cashiers, meat cutters, and other grocery workers, whose contract has been extended to expire tomorrow.

The labor dispute comes in the wake of a bitter supermarket strike and lockout in Southern California that went on for nearly five months. The impact of that strike could have consequences across the nation, beginning with the Baltimore-Washington area, according to labor experts.
California-based Safeway is also involved in contract negotiations in several other locations, among them Seattle, Denver, and Arizona.

If Giant and Safeway workers go on strike, it would be the first time in at least 30 years. The supermarket business has undergone enormous change in that time, particularly in recent years as Wal-Mart and other nonunion retailers have siphoned off consumer dollars.

Other unionized chains in the Baltimore-Washington area -- Metro, Super Fresh and Eddie's -- are part of separate contract negotiations not under way, so a strike would mean workers at those stores would stay on the job.
UFCW Local 400 of Washington and Local 27 of Baltimore are scheduled to vote tomorrow on a contract that's still being negotiated. Giant and Safeway locations in the region will be closed from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday so their employees can cast their votes.

If union members reject the contract and more than two-thirds of those at Tuesday's meeting vote to authorize a strike, the union can use the strike vote as a bargaining chip at the negotiating table or start a strike. That action would send all Giant and Safeway union workers in the area to picket lines outside stores as early as Wednesday.

A major issue in the negotiations is health care, a matter that dominates most collective bargaining negotiations around the country and was the overriding issue in the Southern California labor dispute. Both sides decline to discuss their talks in detail, but a union spokesman said the health care costs are at issue across the United States.

"The UFCW, nationally, is committed to maintaining affordable health care benefits for workers in the supermarket industry," said UFCW spokesman Greg Denier. "The supermarkets in this area are profitable; they're in a very strong market position."

Giant and Safeway respond that they're attempting to craft wages and benefits to compete with nonunion stores, which pay their workers much less. The average hourly wage of a clerk at Safeway or Giant is $13.19, compared with $7.68 for a nonunion clerk, Safeway says.

"The main threat is the nonunion competition," said Harry Burton, lead negotiator for Giant and Safeway. "The reason they are a threat is that they pay their people a lot less in wages; they essentially do not have pension benefits as we have; and they pay very little in heath benefits."

Unionized grocers' struggle to adapt benefits and wages to compete with Wal-Mart reflects a change in employer attitude, according to Bill Barry, director of labor studies at the Community College of Baltimore County. In the past, nonunion employers would implement the wages and working conditions of union companies, spreading unionism beyond its members, but now the opposite is true.

"For decades, the unions have set the tone for all of society and established things as paid vacations as 'normal,'" Barry said. "What we're seeing now, probably due to the decline of unionism, is things that were always considered normal are now up for grabs."

Although neither side in the Baltimore-Washington area wants a repeat of the Southern California strike/lockout, in which analysts determined that nobody came out a winner, the terms of the California settlement could set the standard for what employers here and elsewhere expect to gain, and how much grocery employees are willing to give up.

The union, which fought against health care cuts for many of its members, finally agreed to a structure in which new workers would get fewer benefits than existing employees. Unions usually oppose such "two-tier" arrangements because they result in two classes.

Another consideration is that Landover, Md.-based Giant Food, a unit of Royal Ahold NV, the Dutch supermarket conglomerate that's been struggling after an accounting scandal at its food distribution subsidiary US Foodservice, Inc., might not be able to stand a long labor battle, according to analysts.

Both sides are preparing for the worst, however, as the contract deadline nears. Safeway and Giant began advertising in local newspapers for temporary replacement workers. The union responded that the ads were an attempt to intimidate employees, but it's also making preparations, including assembling picket signs, arranging strike pay for workers, and creating a network of activists, ready to raise money and join picket lines if necessary.

The Teamsters, the union representing truck drivers who deliver food and other items to Giant and Safeway, have announced they would honor a strike by not crossing picket lines for deliveries. The supermarkets say they will be able to remain open and keep their shelves stocked anyway.
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