Community and religious leaders, workers, and representatives from various unions stood outside 38 Bay Area Safeway stores on Friday asking customers to sign cards pledging their support for workers in the event of a strike or boycott as contract negotiations between the two sides drag on.
The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, which represents 30,000 workers, and three supermarkets—Safeway, Albertson’s, and Kroger—have been negotiating a new contract since September, and according to the union have made little progress.
Matthew Hardy, a representative for the UFCW Bay Area coalition, said the union expects to receive a contract offer similar to the one accepted in southern California in February. Last week the stores delivered their wage proposal, which the union called a “non-starter.” As the Daily Planet went to press, the two sides were deliberating about the store’s health benefits proposal.
“The Northern California locals will not accept the same contract,” said Hardy.
That contract, ratified after a four and a half month strike, created a two tier system for the southern California employees. It will take new employees longer to reach the top of their pay scale and their top pay was significantly reduced. New hires and their dependents also have to wait significantly longer to be eligible for health benefits. Under the old contract new hires were eligible after five months, and now have to wait one year. Dependents have to wait 30 months.
“It’s not like we want to strike, but we feel like the best way to protect our families is to prepare for one,” said Hardy. “Everyone knows. People have been saving for months.”
Representatives from Safeway did not return phone calls.
On the sidewalk in front of the Shattuck Avenue Safeway, volunteers collected a stack of cards several inches thick after being told by the Berkeley Police they could not solicit in the parking lot. A majority of shoppers signed the cards.
“It’s really pathetic that people wouldn’t have health care,” said Dave Wilkerson, a neighbor who said he stops by the store four to five times a week. He said if employees struck the store he would quickly take his business elsewhere.
Union representatives for UFCW employees in Berkeley, Albany, and Oakland said a strike is a real possibility.
A study released by the UC Berkeley Labor Center after the Southern California contract was signed estimated that the grocery industry’s turnover rate, combined with the longer waiting period, plus higher premium costs might leave up to 53 percent of the union workers without health benefits by 2007. As a result, the report says, workers will be forced to rely on the public health care system, shifting between $66 and $102 million in health care costs onto the tax payers.