November 29, 2008 in City

Union taking contract fight with grocers public

Billboards, ads urge shopping at Rosauers
By The Spokesman-Review

Area grocery workers are putting up yard signs, renting billboards and running radio and television ads in an unprecedented effort to convince consumers they should shop at Rosauers, and not Albertsons, Safeway or Fred Meyer.

Larry Hall, president of United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1439, said the union decided to launch its “contract campaign” because negotiations have failed to resolve wage and benefit issues, as well as disputes over hours and the firings of workers for what he characterized as “inadvertent” mistakes handling money.

In at least one case, he said, a nine-year employee of Fred Meyer was fired for handing a $100 check back to a customer who had used it to buy a gift card. The store manager or head of security could have canceled the card to nullify the mistake, but instead dismissed the checker.

“We don’t think that is just treatment of workers,” Hall said, adding that nine such cases are in or are headed for arbitration.

Although only Fred Meyer has dismissed workers for making a mistake, he said the ads name the other chains because all help pay the arbitrators, and share other expenses related to labor matters. Albertsons has been singled out in some of the ads because the company is the union’s next priority for a settlement, he said.

Local 1439 represents 6,400 workers in Eastern Washington, including 1,800 in Spokane, Hall said.

He said the old contract between the grocers and Food & Commercial Workers expired in January, but remains in effect until a new pact is signed. Earlier this month, Rosauers agreed to a five-year agreement that includes wage increases of 35 cents or 40 cents per hour, additional contributions to a trust that covers health care, and preference for older workers who want additional hours.

But spokeswomen for Albertsons and Fred Meyer said the deal between the union and Rosauers will not be final until all agree on how much all four chains will contribute to their common health-benefits trust. Also, the contracts between the union and chains include a clause that entitles each chain to sign the best contract negotiated by any of the four, said Albertsons’ Stephanie Martin.

“They’re providing misleading information to the public,” she said. “The final terms are very much up in the air.”

She noted Albertsons has not fired any employee for making an isolated mistake, and said the company was disappointed with the union’s decision to go public with its contract issues.

“We’ve been dedicated to working together at the negotiating table,” said Martin, who said Albertsons wants a contract that will allow the company to remain competitive.

Melinda Merrill said entry of non-union Winco into the Spokane market makes a viable contract even more urgent for Fred Meyer, which has four stores in the area.

“What Rosauers did is not something we can buy into,” she said.

Fred Meyer has not yet been mentioned in the union ads, Merrill said, but she predicted that will change. “It doesn’t affect the negotiations,” she added.

She said arbitrators in other areas have upheld Fred Meyer’s policy regarding dismissals of employees for negligence that results in a loss.

“It’s something we feel you have to have a clear line on,” she said, adding “That’s a really tough line to walk.”

Negotiations resume Thursday.

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