In the bag: Grocery workers' last-minute union deal

Less than two hours before Puget Sound grocery workers were scheduled to walk off the job, unions and grocery chains found common ground on health benefits and overtime pay.
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Grocery workers celebrate a tentative bargaining agreement on Monday night at Westlake Park in downtown Seattle.

Less than two hours before Puget Sound grocery workers were scheduled to walk off the job, unions and grocery chains found common ground on health benefits and overtime pay.

With less than two hours remaining before roughly 21,000 Puget Sound grocery workers were set to strike on Monday night, union representatives reached a tentative bargain with four supermarket chains.

The lead negotiator for the chains, Scott Powers, released a short statement in an email: “We are pleased to announce that we have reached a tentative settlement agreement with the unions that continues to preserve good wages, secure pensions and access to quality, affordable health care for our employees.” 

The details of the agreement won't be made public until it is reviewed and ratified by union members, according to Dave Schmitz, President of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21, the union that represents most of the employees. Two other unions, the UFCW 367 and the Teamsters Local 38, were also involved in the negotiations. 

“We’re pleased to be able to be in a position to make this announcement tonight,” he said to a crowd of union members and reporters at Westlake Park, in downtown Seattle on Monday night. “We hope to have a vote as soon as possible.”

Safeway, Albertsons, QFC and Fred Meyer stores in King, Snohomish, Pierce, Kitsap, Thurston and Mason counties would have been affected by the strike. 

The tentative agreement has the recommendation of a 25 member bargaining committee made up of grocery store workers. Eleanor Knight, who works as a cashier at a Fred Meyer in Issaquah, has been a part of the committee since last March, when the labor contract negotiations began. “I’m just glad it’s over,” Knight said. “And I’m just glad there wasn’t a strike, nobody could’ve afforded that.”

Although she could not discuss the specifics of the agreement, she said that a priority for her going into the negotiations was saving health benefits for employees who work less than 30 hours each. She also mentioned holiday pay. “If you want to take away our holiday pay,” she said. “Then keep the stores closed on holidays.”

Hammering out an agreement was a “little tougher” than in past years, said Scott Shiflett, another committee member, who has been involved in the last three rounds of bargaining between the unions and the chains. Shiflett has worked as a meat cutter at a Kenmore Safeway since 1999 and said that this time around the two parties “didn’t meet quite as much.”

He said another difference in this year’s negotiations was the energy level among workers. “The members out there in the stores getting fired-up is what got the CEOs to move,” he said. “We wanted to get back into the middle class again. At least I can have a little part of the American Dream.”

A crowd of union members — many of them wearing dark blue sweatshirts with the slogan “Many Faces One Voice” embroidered on the back, or yellow scarves with the UFCW Local 21 logo — assembled at Westlake Park around 6:30 p.m., shortly after the initial reports of the agreement began to spread. The park has provided a makeshift gathering-place for the workers since the union announced a 72-hour notice of intent to strike last Friday.

Shortly after Schmitz, the union president, announced the agreement, two three by four-foot panels, one with the number “0” and another with the number “2,” which hung over a stage the union had assembled in the park, were taken down along with a sign that said: “Hours Until Strike.”

By about 7:30 p.m., most of the news media — save three broadcast TV vans — had left the park and the crowd of union members began to thin. Aluminum trays of steaming-hot pasta arrived for the workers, picket signs that said “Stand Together, Fair Pay for Hard Work” sat idle in cardboard boxes, while a DJ played music, including Mcfadden and Whitehead’s “Aint No Stopping Us Now.”


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