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Labor Contracts Set to Expire in Washington, D.C., New England Areas

WASHINGTON - With the clock ticking on a March 27 labor contract expiration date, there is a "serious possibility" that ongoing negotiations between some 18,000 unionized employees at Giant Food and Safeway in the Washington, D.C., area could collapse over health care and pension benefits issues, according to The Washington Post.

C. James Lowthers, who leads the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, was quoted in the paper as saying he fears the grocery chains may take "extreme positions on employee health care and pension benefits to compete with low-cost competitors."

The lead negotiator for Giant and Safeway told the paper both chains need to cut costs amid mounting pressure from non-unionized competitors, but said both chains -- which reportedly have signed a deal that will have one locking out its employees if the union strikes the other -- will work to avoid a labor stoppage.

The pending negotiations come at delicate time for both chains, which are currently immersed in other issues, including the ongoing labor strike at Safeway's Southern California division, as well as last week's announcement that the majority of Giant's local buying operations will be shifted into a single operating unit based at its sister Stop & Shop division's Quincy, Mass., headquarters.

The paper said pension plans and work rules, including the growing role of outside labor in the stores, are most likely to be on the negotiating table.

Separately, the Connecticut Record-Journal reports that Stop & Shop negotiators have fewer than 10 days to offer an acceptable contract proposal to their unionized workers or face sending 42,000 workers to the picket lines in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

The paper says representatives from the Quincy, Mass.-based grocery chain and its Netherlands-based parent, Royal Ahold, have been meeting with representatives of five UFCW locals in hopes of reaching an agreement before the workers' contracts expire at midnight on Feb. 14.

While neither side spoke directly about the talks, UFCW Local 1445 posted a letter on its Web site that describes the proposal as "outrageous," while calling concessions "dangerous to current and future members."

Stop & Shop spokeswoman Faith Weiner was quoted as saying the company "is working diligently with these negotiations to end up in a place where our associates will be satisfied and our customers will be served."
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