Grocery workers on alert

Negotiation contract talks entering critical phase

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About 140 grocery store workers in Steamboat Springs are watching closely today as negotiations on a new five-year contract for grocery workers with Safeway, King Soopers (City Market) and Albertsons on the Front Range enter what could be a critical phase.

"I think we'll know a lot more after today," Irene Wilkinson, manager of the Safeway store in Steamboat Springs, said.

Grocery workers here are on separate contracts from those negotiated by their colleagues in United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 working in Denver.

Rhonda Toland, a spokeswoman for City Market in Grand Junction, said Monday that her company and the union are in the process of setting up dates for contract negotiations on the Western Slope, but they have not begun.

About 70 workers at the Steamboat 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, a City Market spokesman said.

Wilkinson said her Safeway store employs 70 people and that all but six work under union contracts. The six people who are not union members include herself, her assistant manager, two pharmacists and two pharmacy technicians.

Workers at the Craig City Market are not union members, but many of the Craig Safeway workers are.

The results of the Denver talks, which affect more than 1,700 workers, could have an effect on how talks on the Western Slope proceed. Wilkinson said that if talks in Denver resulted in a new contract, she would be hopeful that workers here would ratify the same agreement. However, the word form Denver late last week was not encouraging.

The grocery workers needed just several hours last week to reject a new proposal from management. They thought it didn't do enough to preserve the health benefits they enjoyed under the old contract. That contract expired Sept. 11, but was extended until Oct. 16 while the negotiations went to mediation.

The City Market contract in Steamboat Springs expired Oct. 2. The Safeway contract always has been due to expire Oct. 16, the same time the Front Range contract extension is up.

The Safeway in Steamboat recently has run newspaper ads seeking replacement employees in case the talks fall apart and there is a work stoppage -- either a strike, or a lockout by management.

Grocery chains are asking employees to pay $5 to $15 a week toward their health care premiums in the first year of the new five-year contract. It does not offer an increase in wages, but proposes a bonus system.

The contract also would establish lower starting wages and higher health care premiums for new employees.

Dave Minshall, a spokesman for UFCW7 in Denver, said the new health care package would mean that many part-time grocery workers would not make enough to cover their insurance premiums and have money left to live on.

Minshall said most of the union's members make between $10 and $14 an hour. He said 90 percent of them voted against management's last offer, which gave some ground on the amount of annual increases in the contributions management would make to health care premiums.

"The thing I've really heard (from union members) is resentment about all of the money the companies make and all of the money they pay in bonuses to executives," Minshall said.

Historically, when grocery workers have walked out in Steamboat, they have struck City Market and not Safeway, so residents can shop for food without crossing a picket line.

Wilkinson said she hopes it doesn't come to a work stoppage.

"Nobody really benefits from a strike," Wilkinson said. "I don't want it, and I don't think (the employees) want it."

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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