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Wal-Mart strikes again

Union says supermarkets using big box stores as wedge


The three major supermarket chains employing union labor on the Front Range -- Albertsons, King Soopers and Safeway -- narrowly averted a worker strike this month by agreeing to a temporary contract extension just hours before the contract was set to expire. The supermarkets and the union now have until Oct. 16 to hammer out a new agreement, but neither side appears ready to budge.

The supermarkets want workers to each begin paying $5 to $15 weekly toward their health-care premiums as well to pay the cost of any future increases to those premiums. In addition, the proposal calls for new hires to be responsible for paying 20 percent of their health-care costs, and certain types of new workers would not be covered under any company health plan. And new employees would earn less, and annual bonuses based on hours worked would be canceled. The supermarkets say these cuts result from increased health-care costs and rising competition from non-union stores, such as Wal-Mart.

The supermarkets' arguments are "simply a justification for securing concessions," wrote Ernest Duran, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 7. The union says it has an alternative health-care plan that will save supermarkets $21 million a year, a figure disputed by the grocery chains. Duran also points to last year's robust growth of all three chains to argue that the supermarkets are, in effect, crying wolf about health-care costs and the big box stores.

"[Duran's] ignoring the reality of non-union competition," said Pete Webb, spokesman for Safeway and King Soopers. Webb said it took Wal-Mart only eight years to become the second largest food retailer in Colorado Springs, behind Safeway, and Wal-Mart is now the largest grocer nationwide.

-- Dan Wilcock

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