Safeway workers give contract mixed reviews

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— Seventy Safeway workers went to work this week knowing, for the first time in six months, they have a contract.

However, reaction to the contract was mixed among the union workers here.

Longtime meat cutter Keith Barnett said he is paid about $2 less per hour than workers in similar jobs on the Front Range, and the new contract won't change the situation.

"I have to live with that for the next five years," he said.

Another Safeway worker, who asked not to be named, said he's content with the new contract and unconcerned by the new $5 monthly cost of health benefits for a single worker.

The Steamboat workers ratified the new contract along with 7,000 other Safeway workers on the Front Range and Western Slope who belong to United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7. About 45 percent of the workers voted, and 65 percent of them were in favor of the contract.

Union spokesman Dave Minshall said the new contract cuts wages for new hires, slashes health care benefits and virtually eliminates a retiree health care plan.

Safeway officials declined to discuss the specifics of the new contract and only would issue a prepared statement through their public relations firm.

"We're glad our employees have ratified the contract offer," spokeswoman Kris Staaf said. "Benefits include a strong pension and good wages and promotional opportunities. At the same time, it enables us to reduce our overall operating costs to help us remain competitive."

The contract is the same one ratified earlier by employees of the King Soopers chain, which affected City Market workers in Steamboat.

Longtime Steamboat Safeway clerk Jim Engelken said he voted for the new contract, but did so reluctantly.

"It was a done deal, because King Soopers had already ratified," Engelken said.

He worries about a provision in the new contract that allows the national grocery chains to pay new workers at a lower scale than current workers. Engelken views the new contract as fitting into a widening gap between wealthy CEOs and company owners, and the working lower-middle class.

"The thing that really bothers me, is the Wal-Mart effect," Engelken said, referring to the grocery chains' claim during negotiations that they had to gain concessions from their employees in order to remain competitive with the growing number of Wal-Mart super centers across the country.

"You've got a family that controls the Wal-Mart fortune, and they are among the richest in the world. They're extracting (their wealth) from the middle class, and they sell cheap goods to the middle class," Engelken said. "There is a widening disparity (between) the ownership class and the working class."

Barnett said he resented the fact that the bluntly worded ballot he mailed in to the union allowed him to choose only between the options of ratifying the contract or going on strike.

"Those are not the only options," Barnett said.

The meat department and deli workers at the Safeway are a separate bargaining unit, he said. The meat workers wanted to divorce themselves from the union, but the deli workers wanted to remain union workers.

"They don't do anything for me," Barnett said of UFCW 7. He makes $16.96 an hour, but based on his knowledge of the pay scales for meat cutters at non-union stores, he thinks he and his colleagues in Steamboat would do better without the union, and they wouldn't have to pay $50 a month in dues.

Engelken agreed it's frustrating to know that Safeway workers in other resorts towns such as Vail and Frisco get paid a higher wage for the same jobs. That situation is perpetuated by the fact that the company insists on keeping Steamboat as a separate bargaining unit from other resorts towns. However, he thinks the union has helped him and his fellow employees.

None of the employees interviewed felt that morale among their colleagues slipped during the long contract negotiations. And they all agreed that their relationships with their customers didn't suffer -- some said they drew upon emotional support from their customers.

One employee said she will continue doing her job at Safeway and doing it well.

"We don't have a choice," she said. "We have to make a living."

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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