Giant Food, Safeway workers authorize strike against chains

Workers for Giant Food and Safeway in parts of Maryland, Virginia and Washington voted Wednesday to authorize a strike against the supermarket chains, saying management has refused to offer a fair labor contract.

Members of United Food & Commercial Workers Local 400 voted overwhelmingly for the measure, which does not mean that a strike will occur but was meant to send a signal to the companies, the union said.

Local 400 and Local 27, which represent Baltimore-area Giant and Safeway workers, have been in joint negotiations with both supermarket chains since early September. The contract for 28,000 workers expired Oct. 31 and has been extended twice, most recently on Tuesday, through Dec. 20.

"Today, our members put Giant on notice that it is long past time to come to the table with a proposal that provides them with the security, respect and dignity they have more than earned," said Local 400 President Mark P. Federici.

Federici said Tuesday that the impact of health reform on workers' health coverage has been the biggest obstacle to reaching an agreement.

Leaders of Local 27, which represents Baltimore-area workers at Safeway and Giant, could not be reached Wednesday, but Maura Pond, a spokeswoman for the UFCW International, said the local had not taken a strike vote as of midafternoon.

Giant spokesman Jamie Miller said the company is aiming for an agreement that offers competitive wages and benefits but reflects "our market realities."

Grocery competition has intensified in recent years as nonunionized supermarket chains such as Harris Teeter, Wegmans and Whole Foods have entered the Baltimore market or expanded. Meanwhile, big-box stores such as Walmart, drug chains and convenience stores are taking a bigger share of consumers' grocery dollars

"While it is unfortunate Local 400 conducted an authorization vote, the vote does not necessarily mean the union will initiate a work stoppage after the current Dec. 20 expiration," Miller said. "Giant has a long history of working together with unions to reach collective bargaining agreements that are fair and reasonable for all parties. We are encouraged by the progress we are making."

The parties wrapped up seven straight days of bargaining on Tuesday and have agreed to continue talks next week and into December, said Greg Ten Eyck, a spokesman for Safeway.

"The bargaining teams are dealing with very complex issues, and Safeway is committed to attempting to address the concerns of the unions while also finding ways for the company to mitigate the cost advantage of nonunion retailers, who in recent years have entered the region and taken market share from traditional grocers like Safeway," Ten Eyck said.

The company hopes to reach a "fair and competitive" labor agreement, he said.

"The big issue at the table has been health care, and today our union brothers and sisters refused to go backward," said Vivian Sigouin, a Safeway worker on Local 400's bargaining committee.

Giant workers who serve on Local 400's bargaining committee urged members to stand together and support the decision by participating in store actions. Members at both chains are planning a series of store actions to inform customers and community members about key issues such as living wages and health and retirement security

"We're the ones making all their money, and it's about time they recognize that and start respecting us," Tasha Schrantz, a Giant worker and member of the bargaining committee, said in a union statement.

Federici said workers have made Giant profitable and the area's dominant grocer and seek a fair deal that reflects their contributions.

"No one wants a strike," he said, "but if that is the only way to get a contract providing living wages and health and retirement security, that is what we will do."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com