Willamette Valley grocery talks stalled

EUGENE - A federal mediator has been brought in to attempt to settle a labor dispute between grocers in the Mid-Willamette Valley and members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555.

At their last bargaining session Sept. 26, the union requested talks be suspended until further information could be obtained concerning pension and health and welfare plans proposed by NW Food Employers Inc., which is bargaining for Safeway, Albertsons and Fred Meyer stores in Eugene, Springfield, Salem, Albany, Corvallis, Lebanon and Sweet Home.

"We've been requesting this information for months, and we won't meet again until we get it," said John Etten, director of collective bargaining for Local 555.

Etten said the information is essential so that their bargaining team can consult with trust fund experts to determine the impacts the employer proposals will have on the funds - both immediately and in the future.

Etten said an agreement was reached to set up special meetings with trust advisers. "Negotiations will reconvene once the parties know the full impact of the employer's demand to severely reduce their workers' retirement plans and medical plans," he said.

Local 555 represents 1,100 grocery clerks and meatcutters in Eugene and Springfield and another 1,500 in Salem area. Employees have been working without a contract since Feb. 16 in Eugene/Springfield and since Aug. 3 in the Salem area.

Both bargaining units have authorized strikes and the union has conducted media workshops for members so they can explain their plight.

"This is the first time the union has been forced to conduct this type of extensive training in preparing for a possible strike," Etten said.

Local 555 also announced that retired chief negotiator Rick Sawyer has returned voluntarily to assist as the union's media spokesperson.

"I could not sit this one out knowing that these profitable corporations are trying to gut the contracts and destroy the future for our industries," said Sawyer. "Given their demands, I don't see how a strike can be averted."

Etten said the employer group presented a new contract offer at a mediated session Sept. 17 that provided only a few minor changes from their last offer. He said grocers still want a five-year wage freeze; all new employees to be at least 21 years old before pension contributions begin, and two years of 120 hours per month employment to qualify for a "minimal health plan." Etten said current employees also would be expected to pay "a very substantial portion" of their health care insurance premiums, as well.

In other bargaining news, Local 555 is preparing negotiations with grocers in Coos Bay. Etten said the union is expecting similar demands for takaways. "It's a pattern they've taken across the country," he said.

October 4, 2002 issue

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