Grocery workers ratifying new contracts

Grocery workers at major supermarkets in Oregon and Southwest Washington are voting on new collective bargaining agreements this month, bringing an end to nearly two years of negotiations that was steering toward a strike.

At press time, new contracts had been ratified at Fred Meyer (Kroger), Safeway, Albertsons, and QFC stores in Portland, Vancouver, Eugene, The Dalles, Hood River, Newberg, Bend, Newport, and Burns. Voting will take place in other parts of the state through Feb. 20.

United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555 represents approximately 14,000 grocery clerks, meat cutters, and central checkout clerks at the stores. A 45-member Unity Bargaining Committee has been in negotiations for more than 22 months with Allied Employers Inc., a Kirkland, Washington-based firm representing grocers. It is the first time in the union’s history that contracts from each geographic region within its jurisdiction — from Klamath Falls, Oregon, to Longview, Washington — were bargained simultaneously.

Up until late January, employers had budged very little on their demands to increase the minimum waiting time to receive full health care coverage (from 43 months to a minimum of 78 months), and to double the out-of-pocket annual maximum for family coverage to $12,000. Employers also wanted the ability to schedule workers seven days a week without any days off or having to pay overtime, effectively eliminating the five-day work week.

Having seen enough, the union scheduled a series of statewide strike vote/contract update meetings for members throughout the month of February. That action prompted the employer group to engage in a four-day, 68-hour marathon bargaining session starting Jan. 29. Those talks resulted in an offer the union was willing to take to its membership for a vote.

“This was some of the toughest bargaining in bad times that I’ve ever seen,” said Secretary-Treasurer Jeff Anderson, a 36-year member of the union.

Anderson said employers agreed to merge the Portland area medical plan with  the Joint Labor Management Retail Trust. JLMRT covers employees from Salem to the California border, in  Central Oregon, in far Eastern Oregon, and in Southwest Washington.

Employers will increase funding for medical insurance by 14.87 percent; JLMRT members will see their Level 3 benefits improve, with deductibles reduced from $500 to $300 and annual out-of-pocket costs reduced from $5,000 to $3,000. After annual deductibles are met, the plan will pay 85 percent of the bill, a 10 percent increase from the previous contract.

Contract expiration dates also were altered so that Portland will lead off in the next round of bargaining starting in June 2015. The union wanted its largest group to be first out of the blocks because it provides more power at the bargaining table. In the past, the Portland unit bargained toward the end, after smaller contracts downstate had already been completed. Additionally, the time span between when the first and last contracts expire was narrowed from 30 months to 16 months.

Anderson acknowledged that the contracts also contained “some awful stuff,” but he said it was probably the best the bargaining committee was going to get, short of a strike. Workers will get a raise of 25 cents an hour over three years; it will take new hires more hours to reach journey-level status; and they won’t be paid time-and-a-half when working holidays.

The new contracts for the Portland area expire in June 2015; Vancouver  expire in December 2015; The Dalles/ Hood River expire in June 2016; Eugene expire in February 2016; Newberg expire in September 2015; McMinnville expire in August 2016; Bend expire in July 2015; Burns expire in December 2015; Lincoln City/Newport expire in August  2016.

Portland area grocery workers and meat cutters listen to details of a labor agreement reached last week between UFCW Local 555 and Safeway, Fred Meyer, Albertsons and QFC stores.

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