Seattle Grocery Workers Locked in Contract Battle

Negotiations for Seattle-area grocery workers are at a critical crossroads. Contracts with Safeway, Albertsons, and Kroger-owned stores for 25,000 members of five United Food and Commercial Workers locals expired May 2. They have been extended several times, most recently through July 23.

To take their fight to the public, workers started a campaign to ask consumers to pledge to boycott Safeway in the event of a labor dispute. According to Seattle-area UFCW 1105 business representatives, consumer pledge cards are piling up in the local union halls and will be “dumped on the bargaining table” at some point to illustrate just how big the monetary losses will be for the grocery companies.

At issue in the talks is the usual menu of take-aways: holiday pay, premium pay, seniority rights, health care, and loss of clerk jurisdiction. Union leaders have offered $120 million in concessions, but this is not sufficient for the employers, who want about $500 million total from health benefits alone.


Most troubling is the specter of a two-tier wage and benefit system. A small but increasingly militant and vocal group of UFCW clerks has launched a “Vote No on Two-Tier” campaign. They are spreading the word through a website and newsletter, talks with co-workers, and planning sessions.

The website and newsletter StrikePage started when one of the authors, Andy Heyman, a meatcutter employed with Kroger-owned Fred Meyer, made fliers to counter employer “information” on the negotiations.

As negotiations continued rank and filers began to question local leaders’ lack of communication and connection to members. While the members seemed dead set against a two-tier contract, the leaders seemed ready to allow it.

Fliers were taken to a meeting of UFCW Local 44, which covers northern Puget Sound counties. They explained how two-tier is devastating workers in southern California.



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Local 44 members read that “new hires and scabs are getting preferred scheduling and more hours than veteran employees,” and that harassment by management was becoming rampant. Misti Senn, a meatwrapper at Kroger, questioned the leadership at the meeting about its willingness to accept this concession, and received assurances that they were “not negotiating a two-tier contract.” Given the two-tier UFCW contracts being settled around the nation, many members are not reassured.


Many reform-minded members are now questioning the UFCW’s leadership. According to (the website for the UFCW reform group, Research-Education-Advocacy-People), the UFCW has some of the worst bargaining results in the labor movement; the wage differential between union and non-union clerks went from about 32 percent in the early 1980s to about 3 percent in the late 1990s.

One Safeway journeyman food clerk and UFCW 1105 member asked, “Why is it that our leadership tells us to scrimp and save for a strike and then some of them go out and buy expensive new SUV’s? Why have membership services like shop steward training classes and our United Front newsletter been cut?”

Challenging UFCW leadership to become more member-oriented is one part of a platform of proposals these workers plan to take to the UFCW membership at large in upcoming months, whether or not there is a strike. Other proposals include getting strong shop steward language in every contract, and a steward in every store.

Workers should also learn from each other’s successes, such as the recent contract negotiated between UFCW Local 1105 and a small Seattle-area grocery co-op, Madison Market. In 2002, both the store management and the union wanted workers to accept a contract with minimal pay increases and no health care for employees’ spouses and kids.

But rank-and-filers organized, leafleted, and petitioned both co-workers and customers. They rejected a concessionary contract and voted nearly unanimously to strike. Store management gave in and workers won what one employee called “solid pay increases and health care benefits.”

Jill Gannicott is a variety manager for Safeway in Seattle, and a UFCW Local 1105 member. Andrew Heyman is a meatcutter employed with Fred Meyer in Everett, and a Local 44 member.