By Peter Marcus, DENVER DAILY NEWS
Grocery workers have split on a vote over whether to reject their respective supermarket chains’ “last, best and final” offers, bringing Safeway workers one step closer to a strike.
In an unusual vote, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 members split their vote, with Safeway workers rejecting the corporation’s latest offer, while King Soopers/City Market workers voted to accept the offer.
The split puts both the union and grocery chains in an odd situation, as both sides had been negotiating as a unified front, with union members seeking improved contracts for both King Soopers and Safeway workers, while the two chains presented similar contract offers.
There had even been a lockout agreement between the two chains, where if workers from one store went on strike, the other store would lock out employees who are part of Local 7. But because King Soopers workers agreed to accept the contract, the lockout agreement is void, said union spokeswoman Laura Chapin.
Safeway workers hope to return to the bargaining table, but a spokeswoman for Safeway said it was too premature Tuesday to speculate on whether the company might entertain another round of bargaining. If the chain does not agree to go back to the table, a strike is imminent, say sources close to the negotiations.
Safeway workers have already voted to authorize a strike, and some units voted to reauthorize a strike, said Chapin.
Despite the clear rift within the union, Local 7’s legal counsel, Crisanta Duran, said the union continues to operate as a unit.
“The workers have stayed united and made every decision by majority vote to improve the contract offer,” said Duran. “The workers are the union, we respect their decisions, and we hope Safeway will, too.”
The split vote comes despite calls by union President Ernie Duran, Jr. to reject the contract offer and authorize a strike. The outgoing president recently lost his bid for re-election after challenger Kim Cordova pointed to nepotism and excessive spending. It was unclear Tuesday how much the split decision rested on a lack of faith in Duran, his daughter Crisanta, and the rest of the union’s current leadership.
Grocery workers are seeking preventative health care coverage to be added to their policies, and for their pension plan to be fully funded. The grocery corporations have proposed cutting pension funding, but have reached a tentative agreement to include preventative health care coverage.
Workers are also looking for a “modest” wage increase that equals about 75 cents per hour.
Negotiations have been taking place for the past eight months. Contract extensions for about 15,000 Safeway and King Soopers employees expired in September — the workers are working without a contract.
Safeway spokeswoman Kris Staaf seemed baffled Tuesday that Safeway workers would reject the offer while King Soopers workers accepted it.
“SWY’s last, best and final offer to Local 7 contained core economic terms virtually identical to the one presented by King Soopers,” she said in a statement.
Staaf added that it was unclear Tuesday from her chain’s perspective as to whether Safeway workers were seriously considering a strike. She said some early reports stated that Safeway workers rejected the offer by the two-thirds necessary to authorize a strike.
The two chains have said that they have an entire fleet of temporary replacement workers ready to fill in if a strike becomes reality.
Meanwhile, Safeway employee Arlys Carlson says it is time for Safeway to listen to its workers.
“We’ve now rejected the offer four times, so Safeway should listen to their employees,” said the 30-year Safeway worker. “Especially in light of the millions of dollars these corporations are earning, workers deserve the pension they have earned and were promised, plus livable wages and affordable, accessible health care.”
Distributed by Colorado Capitol Reporters