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Local grocery workers may vote on possible strike next week

If impasse over health benefits continues, vote will take place Feb. 7

By Cami Joner
Published: January 29, 2013, 4:00pm

Grocery store workers at Albertsons, Fred Meyer and Safeway stores in Southwest Washington and Oregon will vote next week on whether to strike if an impasse in contract negotiations continues.

Health benefits are the main issue behind the stalemate, Dan Clay, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers local union, said Tuesday. About 14,000 members of the 19,000-member union are gearing up for the Feb. 7 vote in Vancouver, Portland and Eugene, according to union negotiators. Clay said he believed a majority of voting members would approve a strike if the negotiations fail.

“The members I’ve talked to, I believe would overwhelmingly vote in favor of a strike authorization,” he said.

Clay represented the UFCW Local 555 in Tuesday talks with negotiators from Allied Employers Inc., a Kirkland-based firm representing the grocery store chains. He said the two parties remained far apart on the issue of medical benefits, but declined to provide specific details of the negotiations.

“Health and welfare is the main topic of discussion,” Clay said, adding that many of the full- and part-time workers represented by the union have health benefits that don’t adequately cover their medical expenses.

“Being under-insured is a huge problem in Oregon and Washington,” he said.

Clay said the union represents hourly paid grocery store workers, many of whom have been working without a contract for two years. The workers earn wages ranging from a high of $16 per hour to a low of 10 cents above the state minimum wage, which is $9.19 per hour in Washington and $8.95 per hour in Oregon.

Union members pay weekly union dues of approximately $10 per week.

“Money is a valuable and important thing” to members of his union, Clay said. “But being able to take your kids to the doctor is a valuable thing, too.”

A bargaining table representative for the grocery companies said health care benefits are often a major sticking point in contract negotiations.

Both sides propose employers raise contributions to the benefit package, said Scott Powers, chief negotiator from Allied Employers Inc.

“It’s just a matter of how much,” he said. “This is very common. It is often a key issue in bargaining.”

Powers said union representatives spent much of Tuesday reviewing the latest proposal from management. Members of the local UFCW work in several Clark County locations, including Fred Meyer, which has eight stores and employs 1,550 people in Clark County. Members of the union also are employed by Safeway, which has nine local stores and employs 1,081 people, and by Albertsons, which operates four Clark County stores.

Powers said his company has successfully negotiated contracts for many other UFCW groups across the nation.

“We hope we can get an agreement soon, but it’s impossible to say when,” he said.

Clay also was hopeful the talks would lead to a resolution. If not, the vote on whether to strike will be held at several locations. In Vancouver, a vote will be held at three different times, at 9 a.m., 1 p.m. and at 7 p.m. Feb. 7 at the Vancouver Community Library, 901 C St., Vancouver.