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News / Business

Thousands of grocery workers in region approve union contract

By Thomas Clouse, The Spokesman-Review
Published: May 14, 2024, 7:54am

SPOKANE — Katrina Keffer was supposed to keep a neutral expression on her face when the company officials told her their proposal for pay increases for employees of Spokane-area Fred Meyer, Albertsons and Safeway stores.

The 23-year veteran employee of Fred Meyer failed.

“I almost started crying. I literally had to turn my back,” said Keffer, a Colbert resident. “I was smiling and tears were forming in my eyes because they were going to give us what we wanted. It was so exciting.”

Keffer, 62, is one of about 6,200 employees of both Albertsons-owned and Kroger-owned grocery stores who ratified agreements earlier this month for new contracts that provide higher wages for all employees regardless of their departments or places they live.

The agreement reached with the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, or UCFW 3000, covers workers who live in a geographical region that includes all of Washington east of the Cascades, northeast Oregon and North Idaho.

Sean Embly, chief of staff for UCFW 3000, said negotiations with the stores began in November and concluded with a tentative agreement on April 30. Grocery store workers in Spokane voted to ratify seven separate contracts on May 2.

The new contracts will run for three years from the end of the last agreements. The agreement, which does not include local Rosauers Supermarket employees, will bump workers’ pay by at least $2 an hour and an additional $1 per hour for each of the two successive years of the contracts.

“We feel this negotiation was a step forward for getting the same pay in our jurisdiction. We think grocery store workers deserve more than we were able to win,” Embly said, “but the biggest piece of the settlement agreement was a good wage settlement.”

The negotiations occurred during the backdrop of $24.6 billion merger negotiations between Albertsons and Kroger, and they marked the first talks for grocery workers since the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns placed those employees on the frontlines with scared locals.

After government officials declared them essential workers, many stores gave grocery workers a $2 bump in pay. However, most of those “hazard” or “hero” pay bumps were rescinded in a few weeks, Embly said.

“That was an essential focus of the negotiation,” he said. “The workers in the greater Inland Northwest had settled their contract right before COVID hit. That is why when we were bargaining the $2 up front was so important because it was symbolic for the hazard pay they got during the pandemic.”

Keffer, the Fred Meyer worker, was part of the negotiation team for the recent contracts.

“There were days I came back to work crying because of the awful things that were said during negotiations,” Keffer said. “But (coworkers) hugged me because I have the largest mouth in the store, my boss said. I don’t have a filter.”

The talks lasted about six months and workers staged an information picket in the first week of March to inform customers of what was at stake. When the negotiation team informed management that they had a hard date of May 2 to settle or strike, the companies came back with the wage increases, Keffer said.

Keffer returned to hugs from coworkers.

“I don’t even have words,” she said. “I’ve been walking round with a smile on my face.”

Keffer said she and her husband can now start putting money in savings for the first time in a decade.

“I feel like it’s giving me more security,” she said. “I am stoked.”

Equity across positions

Embly, the union chief of staff, said area grocery workers had already negotiated for good health care plans and pensions as part of their benefits packages prior to the new contract negotiations.

“But you can’t feed your family or pay your rent with health care benefits or your pension,” Embly said. “Getting that wage increase in these negotiations was tremendously important.”

Going forward, the wage for experienced grocery workers went from $16.88 an hour to $19.71 as of the signing of the contract. Those same employees would then get a $1 bump in each of the two subsequent years of the contract.

Another major piece of the contract involved getting similar pay for different jobs, said Embly, whose union also is representing nurses and other workers at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center.

For example, grocery stores traditionally had paid lower wages who worked in “perimeter” departments, like delis or bakeries.

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“If you walk into a grocery store today, you see predominantly women and people of color working the perimeter departments,” he said.

They will now work under the same pay scale as clerks and checkers, he said.

“This is a way not only to reward workers for the hard work they do, but also address some equity issues that had existed for a long time in our grocery stores,” he said.

Joyce Loffelmacher, 61, of Spokane is one of those employees. She’s worked 19 years at the deli at the Albertsons at 6520 N. Nevada St.

“The raises are amazing,” said Loffelmacher, who immediately got a pay bump of $2.83 an hour. “Especially for those of us in the outer perimeter departments who have been neglected for a number of years.

“That raise,” she continued, “is going to be make a difference in my life.”

Like Keffer, Loffelmacher served as part of the negotiation team. She said she’s been losing her hearing for years and worked to get a provision in the contract so that the health benefits now cover the expensive hardware for hearing aids.

Before, the health insurance would only cover testing, not the corrective equipment.

“At our contract signing, when we explained that to the members, there were six other people cried over that fact that this finally got negotiated in,” she said. “I call it ‘My baby.’ Now I can actually afford to go out and get the proper devices.”

In addition to equal pay for different jobs, grocery workers in Yakima and Wenatchee may have been paid less for the same job in Spokane, Embly said. The contract bumps pay for all of those employees regardless of where they live.

“In Washington state, we now have predominantly one wage classification that will cover grocery clerks going forward,” Embly said. “We felt this negotiation was a step forward for getting the same pay in our jurisdiction.”

Merger faces legal hurdlesWhile most of the workers have voted to ratify the new contract, workers in Cheney and a handful of stores in northeast Oregon are expected to hold votes later this month.

The contracts for Spokane-area workers settled the wages question, but several concerns continue to swirl about the effort of Albertsons and Kroger to merge, which was first announced in October 2022. The companies claimed a merger is the only way to compete with retail giants Amazon and Walmart.

The merger has brought lawsuits from the attorneys general of Washington and Colorado, and a federal suit was filed in Oregon by the Federal Trade Commission, which are all trying to block the merger over concerns that it would reduce customer choices and bargaining positions of employees across the country.

Last month, the two grocery giants announced that they would sell an additional 166 stores to C&S Wholesale Grocers. That would bring the total to 579 stores the companies would shed to address concerns raised by regulators.

But Tom Geiger, the special projects director for UCFW 3000, said the union fears that the merger would be a repeat of the debacle from Seattle a decade ago when the Albertsons merger with Safeway led to selling dozens of locations to local grocer Haggen.

It prompted a $1 billion lawsuit in 2015 by Haggen, which argued that the grocery giant hoodwinked the smaller chain into buying stores and then sabotaged Haggen’s entry into the new markets.

Geiger fears a similar ending with the deal for C&S Wholesale, based in New Hampshire.

“They are looking to increase, more than 25 fold, the number of stores they would run,” Geiger said. “That’s just not feasible. It would be the Haggen experience on steroids.”

Kroger officials have said that the merger would not result in any store closures. But Geiger, whose union has joined more than 100 other organizations who are against the merger, said Kroger loses the ability to keep a store open as soon as it sells it.

He noted that UCFW 3000 officials met in February with leaders from C&S Wholesale.

“The bottom line was they do not commit” to not closing stores, Geiger said. “We are not surprised.”

C&S is buying the stores for roughly half the commercial value of the real estate value of those 579 locations, he said.

“In lay person language, they could sell a lot of those pieces of real estate … never operate a store, and they would be fine,” Geiger said.

Efforts to reach Kroger and Albertsons officials on Friday afternoon were not immediately successful.

Geiger said keeping stores in neighborhoods would give shoppers better choices to choose lower prices, but conversely, it would give the larger company a stronger position to argue for lower wages, he said.

“It puts the consumer in a harder spot,” he said. “All sorts of folks think they would be harmed in a significant way.”

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