Grocery contracts looming

Area grocers may be affected by decision

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Workers in three grocery stores in Northwest Colorado are paying close attention as contract talks for their fellow workers on Colorado's Front Range get under way with major grocery chains.

Contracts for 18,000 grocery workers at Front Range King Soopers, Safeway and Albertson's stores are set to expire Sept. 11. All of the affected workers are members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7. The local City Market is a division of King Soopers, which is a division of Kroger.

Contract talks and negotiations for Western Slope workers are separate from those on the Front Range, but are likely to be influenced by Front Range negotiations, said Tammy Theis, president of the Western Colorado Trades and Labor Assembly.

The contract for Western Slope City Market workers is up Oct. 2, and the Safeway contract ends Oct. 16, a union spokesman said.

The level of health benefits is likely to be a major issue in talks, as it was last spring in Southern California, Theis said.

Virginia Watson, the UFCW7 representative for Colorado's Western Slope, said the contract talks affect some of the workers at the Safeway and City Market stores in Steamboat and the Safeway store in Craig. Workers at the Craig City Market are not union members, Watson said.

Milton Christiensen, employee relations manager for City Market in Grand Junction, said about 70 workers at Steamboat's City Market are covered by the UFCW7 contracts. They include checkers, produce clerks, stockers, courtesy clerks and floral shop workers. Workers in the meat, deli and seafood departments are not affected, he said. No negotiating dates have been set for the Western Slope, Christiensen said.

Watson said the existing contract, which was signed in 1999, kept health benefits undiminished. The contract was uncontested by union workers at the time, she added. However, the grocery chains have sent a signal that they need to reduce health benefits, she said.

Grocery contract talks in Southern California this year were dominated by grocery chains' claims that they needed to gain concessions to remain competitive with super center groceries such as those operated by Wal-Mart.

Workers form Kroger, Safeway and Albertson's met in Denver on Aug. 16 and agreed on a health plan that provides the same benefits they currently have but allows them to use more hospitals and health care providers. They say their plan would save the grocery companies $21 million a year. And they have proposed a schedule of regular payments by employees into the plan.

Safeway countered a week later with an employer-managed plan, which it proposed to bid out to private providers.

Safeway workers reacted negatively to the plan, which would relinquish union control.

The settlement reached in California this year left almost all pay scales unchanged. It extended the current health coverage plan for 24 months, after which it expires. The new plan will require higher co-pays and deductibles of employees, according to UCFW7.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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