Theres no need just yet to make a last-minute run to the store for bread and milk.
Although union members have overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike against local major grocery chains, no strike deadline has been set and negotiations might soon begin anew.
The secretary-treasurer of Local 367 of the United Food and Commercial Workers union announced Thursday that 98 percent of members casting ballots voted Wednesday to authorize a strike against any of four area grocery chains Safeway, Albertsons, Fred Meyer and QFC.
With some 1,200 votes cast, the Local represents some 4,000 grocery workers in Pierce County. Those workers are part of a union that represents approximately 30,000 workers in Western Washington.
Even with the large majority favoring a strike, both sides in the contract dispute expect bargaining to resume before a work stoppage is officially scheduled.
We anticipate that the employers are going to bargain, Daniel Comeau of Local 367 said.
Unfortunately, this (strike vote) has become kind of a regular part of the process. Its not unusual, said Scott Powers of Allied Employers, which is negotiating on behalf of grocers.
The contracts being bargained now are the main contracts in King and Pierce counties, Powers said. Once this is done, its applied to all of Western Washington. Thats why the union is saying it involves 30,000 grocery employees, because what comes out of this is the deal for everybody.
Powers characterized the strike authorization vote as premature. Neither party has given last, best and final proposals.
No decision has been made concerning which of the four grocers would face picket lines if a strike is called, and neither does the strike authorization signal an immediate strike.
Using that 72-hour notice is a tactical decision, depending on how employers respond to this vote, Comeau said.
No bargaining sessions were scheduled Thursday, Comeau said, although the sides could meet soon.
What I expect is that the employers will supply us with dates to bargain so we can start to get some movement, he said. We havent had any movement in six months.
Issues in the contract negotiations will include health care benefits, pay for holiday work, paid sick leave and basic salaries.
The health care benefits remain one of the more significant issues to be discussed.
Although union employees might contend theyll receive a worse deal than outlined in their current contract, Powers said, the benefits are great. Were actually saying were going to continue providing excellent benefits to employees who work 30 or more hours. Were using that cutoff because thats what the Affordable Care Act sets. Its different than what we used prior. Its not fair to say were kicking people off health care. This is the system set up by the federal government, whether you like it or not. For people who work less than 30 hours, they will go to the exchange and have subsidies for their coverage.
To focus on 30 hours is missing the point, said Comeau. Theres no telling how many people who are getting 30 hours now, wouldn't" under a new contract.
Theres rules in the contract that determine how people are scheduled, said Powers. "We havent proposed any changes to how employees are scheduled. So if someone isnt getting hours they would like, it means they dont have seniority."
The members are very resolute, Comeau said. They are one in their message that we need to be able to have a contract we can live on. We cant afford to pay for our own health care.
Neither Powers nor Comeau expected immediate pickets. Meanwhile, the stores will continue doing business as usual with union workers working under an extension of their existing contract.
Both sides agreed in May to extend the contract indefinitely, Powers said. Both sides can give 72 hours notice to terminate the extension.
Union members in King County voted to authorize a strike in 2010, although negotiations were later successful and no strike was called. Pierce County members of the union last held a contract vote in 2004, Comeau said, and last conducted a strike in 1989.
Like Comeau, who anticipates a return to discussion, Powers said Thursday, I expect we will go back to the bargaining table and continue to work toward resolution.
C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535
Kathleen Cooper: 253-597-8546