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Friday, April 23, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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Northwest stock contest 2004 | Consumer affairs

Grocery chains hunt for replacement employees in event of strike

By Jake Batsell
Seattle Times business reporter

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The public-relations war over a new labor contract at the Seattle area's four largest grocery chains struck a combative tone this week, as both sides mobilized for a possible strike.

Yesterday, as union leaders bargained with negotiators for Safeway, QFC, Fred Meyer and Albertsons, the chains posted fliers in stores and placed newspaper ads seeking temporary replacement workers in the event of a strike or lockout.

Earlier this week, organizers for the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1105 scheduled an event for next Friday, two days before the current contract expires. The event will feature credit counseling and "strike preparation workshops."

Both sides stressed that talks are continuing. Negotiators met yesterday and have two more bargaining sessions scheduled next week.

The contract, which covers about 16,000 workers, expires May 2. The two sides are sparring over proposed reductions in health benefits and a proposed two-tier wage structure in which new hires would be paid less than veterans.

While each side cried foul yesterday at the other's tactics, labor-relations experts said such visible strike preparations weren't surprising in light of the recent 18-week grocery strike and lockout in Southern California.

"It's part of the ritual," said Daniel Mitchell, a management and public-policy professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. "If you don't do it, it's sort of also telegraphing something."

Mitchell said the same chains posted replacement-worker ads during the run-up to the California strike, which lasted from mid-October through late February.

Since then, grocery workers in Indianapolis and Washington, D.C., have ratified new pacts.

Here, both sides are trying to show the depth of their resolve by making their preparations public, said Harley Shaiken, a University of California, Berkeley, professor who specializes in labor relations. "It doesn't indicate a strike is likely," he said. "It just indicates the negotiations are pretty hardball."
 
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Dan Kully, a spokesman for five UFCW locals in Western Washington, said the grocers' decision to post replacement-worker ads amounts to "negotiating through intimidation and fear instead of good faith."

"We're still at the table negotiating, and we'll stay there for as long as it takes," Kully said. "But we'll do what it takes to protect affordable health care."

Grocery-chain spokeswoman Melinda Merrill said it was unfair to call the ads intimidating since UFCW organizers have been making strike preparations for months.

"They (the chains) just have to prepare to stay in business," Merrill said. "It doesn't dampen the negotiations at all. Really, they've just started."

The talks will affect an additional 9,000 workers at other chains. Some grocers, such as Metropolitan Markets and Town & Country Markets, have reached "me-too" agreements in which employees agree to continue working and to adopt whatever contract emerges from the larger chains' talks.

Other grocers, such as Top Foods and Haggen, are waiting to see how those talks progress before weighing in.

Jake Batsell: 206-464-2718 or jbatsell@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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