BOULDER, Colo. –
Three major grocery chains in the Boulder area are preparing for possible employee strikes that could begin as soon as Sunday, prompting two of the stores to search for thousands of temporary workers.
Officials with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local No. 7 — which continued to negotiate Wednesday with Safeway, King Soopers and Albertsons stores — said the first vote on whether to strike will take place with Safeway workers at the end of this week.
How those union members vote — which could include accepting new contracts, continuing negotiations or to go on strike — will likely dictate how King Soopers and Albertsons workers follow, union officials said.
Laura Chapin, spokeswoman for the union, said workers are still mulling offers from their employers. The sticking points include pay raises and pension plans, she said.
“From our perspective, these grocery stores are very profitable, but all they’re asking from the people who are making these profits (for them) are cuts,” Chapin said.
Calling grocery stores, “pretty much recession-proof,” she said grocers should be offering better pay for the lowest earners — baggers and checkout clerks who often earn minimum wage.
“They want to freeze people at the bottom tier,” said Chapin, referring to an offer put forward by King Soopers’ management. “Most checkers top out at $7.60 an hour.”
Diane Mulligan, spokeswoman for King Soopers, said the company is offering to raise pay for its “journeymen workers” who have hit the top tier of pay for hourly workers. The company is also offering to contribute nearly $35 million into employee retirement accounts to compensate for money lost in the stock market earlier this year.
“Of course, we don’t want a strike,” Mulligan said. “No one wins at a strike.”
King Soopers stores in the Boulder area employ a mix of union and non-union workers, Mulligan said. Union members at most stores in the region are employed in the meat and deli departments only. That means a potential strike would not impact baggers, clerks, bakers or customer service workers.
Still, one Boulder King Soopers meat department employee, who asked the Camera to withhold his name because he could lose his job for speaking with the press about the negotiations, said all of his fellow workers are worried that a strike could be imminent.
“Everybody’s worried,” the worker said. “We go through this every five years or so.”
He said most union members are concerned about the possibility of a lockout, where employees could be prevented from working if Safeway workers vote to strike before employees at the other companies have the chance to vote on the new contracts.
Crisanta Duran, an attorney representing the workers’ union, called a possible lockout part of the “corporate agenda.”
“We are very much worried that the companies have a similar agreement to what they did in 1996,” she said, referencing a strike authorization by King Soopers that led to a more than 40-day lockout by Safeway.
The current five-year contracts between labor and management at all three grocers expire at midnight Saturday. If an agreement isn’t reached by then, the grocers would be in a scramble to hire thousands of temporary workers across the state.
King Soopers joined with Safeway stores this week in seeking applications from thousands of people to fill temporary jobs in the event of a strike.
A bright-green sign advertising the positions Wednesday sat outside the King Soopers at 30th Street and Arapahoe Avenue in Boulder. A store manager declined to say how many applications he’s received so far, but customers said they noticed the signs right away.
“It’s a difficult situation,” said shopper J.R. Garrity.
Garrity said “clearly there are people who need jobs right now,” and a strike might be a win-win for current employees in the long run, and for those out of work who would fill those jobs temporarily.
Christine Wilcox, a spokeswoman for Albertsons, said that company does not have plans to accept applications for temporary jobs.
“However,” she said, “we have plans in place to ensure that our stores are properly staffed in the event that the union chooses to instigate a dispute rather than reaching a resolution at the bargaining table.”
The Albertsons locations in Louisville, located at 910 West Cherry St., and in Lafayette, at 555 West South Boulder Road, are staffed with non-union employees and would not be affected by a strike.
Boulder’s three Safeway stores, however, are all unionized with a combined 325 workers.
Kris Staaf, a spokeswoman for Safeway, said the Boulder locations have seen a steady increase this week in the number of applications being turned in for temporary jobs — which would fill nearly every position if workers went on strike.
“We’re hopeful of reaching a settlement,” Staaf said. “But we also need to prepare for the possibility the labor union will initiate a dispute.”
Staaf said the Boulder Safeway stores are a prime example of the difficulties facing the grocer nationally, because of growing competition with non-union grocers like Whole Foods.
“Twenty years ago you had a handful of grocery stores — now you have competition from non-union stores,” she said.
Robert Porath, 63, of Boulder, said he was part of a labor union years ago and agrees with the workers’ right to strike for a better contract.
“I think that the fall of the unions has helped destroy the middle class in America,” Porath said.
If the workers do strike, he said, customers shouldn’t cross the picket lines.
“That’s the way you support the working-class,” he said. “You’ve got to support them.”
Contact Camera Staff Writer Heath Urie about this story at (303) 473-1328 or firstname.lastname@example.org.