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The United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) local chapters 400 and 27 have been negotiating a new contract with Safeway and Giant for the past six months. Workers are seeking to stop the companies from freezing new workers pay, cutting their health care and reneging on their commitment to fund their pension. The union has reached a tentative agreement with Giant, but talks have stalled with Safeway.
On Wednesday community leaders, elected officials and grocery store workers rallied in front of a Safeway in Southwest Washington, demanding a fair contract. At the rally, Safeway workers announced they have scheduled a vote for March 5, which will determine if they’ll go on strike.
Produced by Kurt Gardinier
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll meet members of the Monacan tribe in Central Virginia. They're fighting to protect their sacred land from a proposed water pumping station. But first groceries store chain Safeway and Giant have 282 stores in the Washington and Baltimore region employing nearly 26,000 workers. The Union representing those employees has been negotiating a new contract with the two companies for the past six months. A tentative agreement has been reached with Giant, but talks have stalled with Safeway.
KOJO NNAMDIYesterday at a rally in Southwest Washington union officials announced a March 5th vote that could result in a strike. But will it come to that and what would that mean for the tens of thousands of employees and the communities they serve. Joining me to discuss this is Jenny Gathright. She is a General Assignment Reporter with WAMU. Jenny, thank you for joining us.
JENNY GATHRIGHTThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIJenny, you've been reporting no this story. Where do things stand in the contract negotiations between Safeway and Giant and the UFCW's local chapter, the UFCW being the United Food & Commercial Workers local 400 union?
GATHRIGHTGiant and the union announced yesterday that they had reached a tentative agreement. So on March 5th the unionized Giant employees will meet and vote on that. And Giant said, you know, as recently as last week that it would double the amount it will guarantee -- it will pay each year to guarantee pensions for Giant employees and that's a big deal, because the pensions seem to be a real sticking point in the negotiations with Safeway, which is the other company that UFCW is negotiating with. And if the two sides, Safeway and the union don't reach an agreement by March 5th, then the union says it could vote to authorize a strike. A Safeway spokesperson has told me that the company is committed to remaining at the bargaining table. But in the event of a strike, they would continue to operate their stores in the area.
NNAMDIYou were at yesterday's rally in Southwest Washington. What did you hear from the elected officials who were there?
GATHRIGHTThere were officials from Prince George's County, from Montgomery County, from D.C. And they all emphasized how important they think grocery stores are. At first because they give people access to healthy food and provide a sense of community, second because they're a source of jobs. And in the case of Safeway and Giant, they're a source of union jobs. And some of those elected officials were also making some larger connections to questions of affordability and what a living wage really means in this area that's becoming more and more expensive.
NNAMDIWhat did you hear from employees? Are they ready to strike?
GATHRIGHTThey're certainly preparing for that possibility. I spoke with a long time -- a union member and shop steward, Natalie Bowling. She's been working for Safeway for more than 30 years. And, you know, she told me that she was explaining to her coworkers that a strike wouldn't happen right away. The vote on March 5th would be to authorize a strike and give the union that tool box. So nothing would happen right away, but Safeway employees are certainly prepared for that possibility and making preparations right now.
NNAMDIEarlier we spoke with Michelle Lee who has worked at Safeway for 32 years. She told us that she and many of her colleagues are ready to strike.
MICHELLE LEEIf Safeway does not come up with a good contract in the next two weeks by March the 5th, I will vote to strike. I talked to several of my coworkers. A lot them have more time than I do. They have 35, 40, 45 years and even the ones that don't have as much time as me, they're concerned about their healthcare, because Safeway wants to cut them back to 24 hours. And if they cut them back to 24 hours they won't be eligible for healthcare. They would lose their healthcare. And so I'm almost positive that all of my coworkers would be ready to strike.
NNAMDIMichelle Lee has worked at Safeway for 32 years. Joining us in studio is Jonathan Williams. He is the Communications Director for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 Union. Jonathan Williams, thank you for joining us.
JONATHAN WILLIAMSThanks for having me.
NNAMDICan you walk us through the specific demands you've laid out in your proposed contract and particularly what are the demands that the grocery chains have issue with?
WILLIAMSWell, we've been in negotiations with both companies for six months now. And we're pleased to say that we have a tentative agreement with Giant. But we have a lot of room to go with Safeway. And throughout these negotiations our goals have remained the same. We're looking for wages we can live on, healthcare we can afford, schedules we can depend on and a pension we can count on. And right now Safeway is unwilling to move on any of these issues with us.
NNAMDIIt seems that the pension funds are a major sticking point. What's the situation with the pension fund at Safeway?
WILLIAMSWell, like many pension funds around the country ours suffered from the 2008 financial crisis. However, we were able to reach an agreement with Safeway in 2012. And it was renewed again in 2013 and 2016. And this agreement guarantees that every participant in our pension fund will continue to receive their benefits. And what's changed this year is that Safeway has denied that this agreement applies to them. We have it spelled out clearly in black and white in both our collective bargaining agreement as well as the trust fund documents themselves that oversee the fund that administers these benefits.
WILLIAMSAnd the fact that Safeway is simply saying, we don't have to owe this money, we don't have to continue paying these benefits, we think has everything to do with the fact that the company has been taken over by Wall Street investors. And they're undertaking their third attempt at an IPO as reported by the Wall Street Journal. And we think -- we suspect that these Wall Street investors have everything to do with the fact that they're trying to get out from under their obligations.
NNAMDISo where do things stand in the negotiations with Safeway right now? We're looking at a March 5th vote on a possible strike. Has that brought Safeway back to the table?
WILLIAMSWe are meeting again with them on February 24th. The last time we met with them was on February 13th. And this has been their pattern is offering bargaining dates that are few and far between. Meanwhile at Giant we worked through the weekend and every day this week to hammer out a deal. So the differences are very stark.
NNAMDIMichelle Lee, the veteran Safeway employee who spoke with us earlier also told us that she is disappointed with how Safeway has been handling the negotiations. Let's take a listen.
LEEI'm very upset, because I've dedicated 32 years of my life to Safeway. I've developed a relationships with the customers and other coworkers and because of those relationships the customers come back and they spend their money in Safeway. And we've helped the company make billions and billions of dollars. We've helped them to be profitable. And now they just want to just disregard everything that we did to help them when they should give some of that money -- put some of the money back into the employees.
NNAMDIMichelle Lee is an employee of Safeway for the past 32 years. As for how Safeway has been dealing with negotiations here's Dominica in Fredericksburg, Virginia. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DOMINICAYes. I'm Dominica and I also sit on the advisory board that meets with the Safeway. And I feel it's very disrespectful. It's rude how they are treating us. It's like once you're finished with us now you're ready to throw us away. We won't be thrown away. And if we have to strike we will strike and stand strong to get what we need, because we deserve it.
NNAMDIIs that the attitude that you feel that you've been picking up from Safeway representatives at the bargaining table?
DOMINICAAbsolutely, because we sit and we show up for the meetings. They don't show up. They say they want to stay at the bargaining table. Well, how about you come to the bargaining table. You have to come to the bargaining table to get through this. You can't get through it if we go weeks without hearing anything.
NNAMDIJonathan Williams, do you sense that there's a reluctance on the part of Safeway to come to the bargaining table?
WILLIAMSWell, they're certainly dragging their feet. This is not the actions of a good faith negotiator right now. And, you know, again it puts in stark relief the difference between these two companies. Giant, again, we met with them all day throughout the weekend and every day. And we were able to come to an agreement. We're ready to put in the work. It's time for Safeway to do the same.
NNAMDIHere's Geoffrey in Mount Rainier in Maryland. Geoffrey, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GEOFFREYHow are you doing? I'm currently an employer from Giant Food and I just want to call in today and say that although I am excited and optimistic that we have a tentative agreement that we've reached with Giant Food that we remain in solidarity and we remain united with our brothers at Safeway, because I know that this battle is long over. And I just want to stress that because I mean, I know I speak for the masses of Giant employees because we know Safeway workers. They're family.
GEOFFREYAnd so I just want to get my message out of solidarity and we are united. And we're going to be with them every step of the way. And you do not have to be me in order to fight alongside each other. And I do not have to be you to recognize that our wars and our fights are the same. So that's my message that unity and solidarity and this battle is not over.
NNAMDIGeoffrey, thank you very much for your call. With that display of union unity, Jenny Gathright, is it common for that to occur in this area? Is it common for grocery stores in this region to be unionized?
GATHRIGHTRight now Giant, Safeway and Shoppers are basically the only unionized grocery stores in the region. I say basically, because Costco is partially unionized with the teamsters and it offers pay and benefits that tend to be at or above the union standards. But, you know, Shoppers announced last year that it's closing a number of its stores in the region. So that's a drop in the share of the market that's unionized. But the impact of unions in the market is still really felt at Safeway and Giant.
GATHRIGHTI spoke with a retail labor expert who told me that, you know, those unions have guaranteed pensions in medical benefits that are, you know, at a really high standard for those workers as -- when you compare them with their competitors. And there's also a national context here that, you know, jobs in grocery stores have been getting worse over time. And these issues with wages, scheduling and benefits that employees at Safeway and Giant are raising here are being raised elsewhere across the country in similar jobs.
NNAMDIWell, Jonathan Williams, Giant it's my understanding is owned by Ahold Delhaize, which is company based in the Netherlands. You say that Safeway is now owned or in fact controlled by Wall Street investors. What difference do you think that makes?
WILLIAMSWell, it makes a huge difference in this case. I mean, we're talking about a private equity firm named Cerberus Capital Management that now controls Albertsons, the parent company of Safeway. And this gives us reason for concern, because since 2012, 10 out of the 14 largest bankruptcies in the retail sector have all been at the hands of private equity owned firms. And so we're looking at 600,000 retail jobs lost in the last 10 years, because of private equity backed retail ownership. And so we don't want to see this kind of thing happen to Safeway.
WILLIAMSSafeway and Albertsons are now the largest private equity owned company in the county. And we do not want to see these Wall Street investors reap all the management fees and dividends. They've already extracted hundreds of millions of dollars from this company in the form of management fees and dividends. Rather than putting that money back into the stores, back into the workers that make this company successful in the first place.
NNAMDIJenny Gathright, Safeway is not in this conversation, but it's my understanding that you got a statement from Safeway.
GATHRIGHTYeah. The statement I got from Safeway is that they're committed to remaining at the bargaining table. They didn't decline to offer details on their proposals. But I asked them, you know, how they would -- how they were making contingency plans for a strike. And they said that they would continue to operate their stores in the event of a strike.
NNAMDIJonathan, Safeway and Giant workers are unionized represented by your union. But there are a lot of people who work in similar jobs in this region who are not unionized. How does certain workers being unionized in an industry affect non-unionized workers? And are the non-unionized workers trying to organize a union or join a union themselves?
WILLIAMSThat's a great question. I mean, let me start out with saying that Giant and Safeway are the top two grocery chains in our region. And it's no coincidence that they're the largest unionized grocery chains in our region as well. Our members provide the best customer service in the business. And our customers understand that. We've been overwhelmed by the support from our customers over the past six months throughout these negotiations, collected thousands of signatures on petitions to the company. We just delivered thousands of Valentine cards to the company on behalf of customers in support of our members.
WILLIAMSBut on top of the benefits that our union provides to our members, we also -- and many studies have shown unions in any industry, a rising tide lifts all boats. When you have more union density in an industry you have better pay better benefits for everyone. And in the case of our jurisdictions here, I mean, our union has been part of the champion leading efforts to increase the minimum wage, to provide paid sick leave, to provide paid family leave. We're also working on legislation that will deal with just hours, that is to say scheduling practices in the retail industry. All of these efforts that we have championed are beneficial to non-union workers and union workers alike.
WILLIAMSAnd when we have our wages above non-union competitors those non-union competitors have to raise their wages and benefits as well to compete with us. And so, once again, a rising tide lifts all boats. And we are in constant communication with other workers at other retailers seeking to organize, seeking to get the same union benefits that we have. But unfortunately our country suffers from an extremely outdated labor law. We also have a number of companies that are just extremely combative to workers exercising their right to organize. And so it's an uphill battle for us for sure. But the benefits are obvious.
NNAMDIJonathan Williams is the Communications Director for United Food and Commercial Workers, UFCW, local 400 union. Thank you so much for joining us.
WILLIAMSThanks for having me.
NNAMDIJenny Gathright is a General Assignment Reporter with WAMU. Jenny, always a pleasure.
GATHRIGHTThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break, when we come back we'll meet members of the Monacan tribe in Central Virginia who are fighting to protect their sacred land from a proposed water pumping station. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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