Portland-based retailer Fred Meyer Stores is asking a Spokane federal court to stop its grocery workers’ union from publishing critical or negative ads as the two sides struggle to conclude a bitter, lengthy contract negotiation.
The company has roughly 420 Spokane workers who are members of the Local 1439 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. The union has been negotiating with Fred Meyer since late 2007; both sides agreed to extend the previous contract that was set to expire in January 2009.
The key obstacle is the company’s policy on worker “negligent cash handling.” Fred Meyer, for more than 15 years, has routinely fired workers for not properly collecting money from customers at the cash register.
Union officials have launched a Web site – www.yourgroceryworkers.com – that showcases what they consider unjust instances of Fred Meyer terminations. One example cites the June 2009 firing of a 70-year-old worker in Tacoma who lost her job after inadvertently giving a $12.30 check back to a customer.
Local 1439 President Larry Wall said the company refuses to add a “progressive discipline” clause in the new contract to allow first-time offenders to keep their jobs.
Wall said that Albertsons, Rosauers and Safeway stores don’t have similar policies regarding first-time cash mishandling. He said Fred Meyer has fired about 10 workers at its four Spokane stores for negligent cash handling in the past few years.
Officials from Fred Meyer say they need to maintain the policy.
“We had to come up with a policy that would prevent (financial loss at the cash register) and be straight and fair across the board,” said Melinda Merrill, a company spokeswoman in Portland.
“We recognize it’s a tough one but it’s the fairest way we’ve figured out how to do this,” Merrill said.
Company lawyers are expected to argue next week in U.S. District Court that the union should be enjoined from distributing fliers, bus ads or radio advertising that directly or indirectly tell shoppers to buy groceries at their competitors’ stores.
Wall said the union has so far produced about 300 yard signs that say “Fred Meyer, Just Wrong.” It also produced bus and bus bench ads that say: “Fred Meyer: firing people for making one honest mistake is just wrong.”Wall noted that the union considers the ads and fliers a form of free speech and should be protected.
At present, one negative ad – running on some Spokane radio stations – tells customers to buy groceries elsewhere, said Wall. The union has also produced billboards in the company’s hometown of Portland, attacking the policy.
Merrill said the company regards the union as unfairly spending roughly $50,000 on an issue that is preventing its members from voting on a new contract.
The negative campaign has cost Fred Meyer business, she added. “We have received calls and letters from people who say they’ve stopped shopping with us because of this,” she said.