Clock ticking on union contract talks with Safeway, Giant Food -- Gazette.Net


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Contract negotiations between union representatives and Safeway and Giant Food officials continued into Tuesday, as the deadline for an agreement loomed less than a week off.

Although the last scheduled meeting between negotiators for the grocers and United Food & Commercial Workers Local 400 concluded Monday night, the groups met again Tuesday to try to resolve outstanding issues, said Local 400 spokeswoman Breanne Armbrust.

“We’re not sure if we will meet tomorrow, but we don’t anticipate we will,” she said of Wednesday.

Armbrust said the sides managed to make a little progress over the weekend but concerns still remained. Neither company nor union representatives would discuss details.

Gregory A. Ten Eyck, spokesman for Safeway, emphasized in an email that the negotiators still have time to resolve the sticking points before the four-year contract expires Saturday night.

During the past three months, officials with Local 400 and Local 27 have met with representatives of grocery chains to hammer out a new labor agreement. In the meantime, both companies have been seeking replacement workers in the event of a strike. The union has said it plans to strike if a settlement is not reached this week.

A similar scenario played out in 2008, when a tentative agreement was reached the weekend that the 2004 contract expired.

Armbrust said this year is different because Monday marked the last scheduled day for negotiations. She said union officials want to have several days to prepare for presenting updates to the rank and file.

Local 400 represents 17,000 workers in the Washington, D.C., area, including those who work at the region’s 126 Giant Food and Safeway supermarkets.

Despite the current difficulties, “we’re really hopeful we will have some agreement,” Armbrust said.

Giant Food did not reply directly to questions about hiring replacement workers, but did issue a statement.

“Giant is committed to working closely with our union partners and negotiating in good faith to reach a fair and reasonable contract that benefits our associates and their families, our customers and our company,” Giant spokesman Jamie Miller wrote in an email Monday. “Our goal is to reach an agreement that ensures our associates continue to be among the highest compensated in the industry in the Baltimore-Washington area, while also positioning Giant to effectively compete in a growing marketplace.”

Giant Food, a division of Royal Ahold of the Netherlands, has its regional headquarters in Landover, while Safeway, a Pleasanton, Calif., chain, has its Eastern division headquarters in Lanham.

“The parties are working hard and although we are dealing with some difficult issues, Safeway remains confident that a peaceful settlement of these negotiations can and should be the result,” Ten Eyck said in his email.

Giant continues to face pressure from competitors with lower labor costs and lower prices that are entering the marketplace, according to a summary of the contract negotiations on the company’s website.

When compared with other grocers, Safeway and Giant Food combined have almost 60 percent of the Baltimore-Washington market share. But that drops to 35 percent when taking into account all businesses that sell grocery products, such as drugstores, according to June figures from Food World, a trade publication in Columbia. Nonunion companies account for most of the top 10 market leaders.

“We are always mindful of our commitment to serve our customers, and we are making contingency plans in order to continue business operations in the event there is a work stoppage,” Miller said in his email.

Meanwhile, union workers sought out those customers this weekend, trying to drum up support.

“If Giant and Safeway won’t listen to the workers whose productivity is responsible for their success, perhaps they’ll pay attention to their customers,” Local 400 President Tom McNutt told the Washington, D.C., Metro Council of the AFL-CIO. “Certainly, the response we’re getting from our customers and the community is overwhelmingly positive. We are grateful for their support.”

lrobbins@gazette.net