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Working In These Times

Friday, Oct 11, 2013, 10:50 am

Obamacare Complicates UFCW Talks; Seattle Workers on Brink of Strike

BY Bruce Vail

UFCW contracts are set to expire in both Seattle and New York City in a matter of days. Seattle-area UFCW Local 21 has voted to strike if grocery chains do not offer an acceptable contract. (UFCW Local 21)  

UPDATE: Deadlines for UFCW contract expirations have been extended in both Seattle and New York City, with local unions reporting some progress but no final agreement in place. 

With hundreds of federal government offices closed down in a Republican Party bid to eliminate or scale back the Affordable Care Act, more than 40,000 grocery union members in the states of Washington and New York are facing Obamacare crises of their own.

Labor contracts covering members of the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) union in both the Seattle and New York City areas are set to expire in a matter of days, but talks to renew the agreements appear deadlocked over the issue of healthcare costs, union representatives say. In both cases, labor and management have been locked in difficult negotiations for months with Obamacare-related health insurance issues said to be the primary issue. 

“We are preparing for a strike” unless Seattle supermarket operators come forward with an acceptable contract offer by the end of this week, UFCW Local 21 spokesperson Tom Geiger tells Working In These Times. A total of 30,000 grocery workers across the Seattle metropolitan area stand ready to hit the picket lines at four separate supermarket chains that are united in demanding health care cuts, wage freezes and other give backs, Geiger says. Last week rank-and-file members voted “overwhelmingly” to authorize a strike, he reports.

The grocery chains Safeway and Albertsons, along with Fred Meyer and QFC (subsidiaries of Kroger Co., the largest supermarket owner in the country), are seeking to eliminate healthcare coverage for a total of 8,000 union members who work 30 hours or less per week, citing the Obamacare provision that says employers are not required to cover part-timers, according to Geiger.

“They are trying to make a bogeyman out of Obamacare," Geiger says. "Obamacare is supposed to provide coverage for the uninsured, but our members are insured right now. There is nothing in the law that requires them to eliminate coverage. It’s just an attempt to save money."

The four supermarket operators are negotiating jointly with a union coalition that includes Local 21, Tacoma-based UFCW Local 367 and Everett-based Teamsters Local 38. Teamster Joint Council 28, a statewide group of 12 Teamster locals with contracts at many warehouses and trucking companies that supply the supermarkets, is backing up the grocery workers with a pledge to honor any legally constituted picket lines. The unions also have the support of the Washington State Labor Council, a statewide federation of about 600 local unions, including all of the major AFL-CIO members.

“Hiding behind the Affordable Care Act is disingenuous and immoral,” Council President Jeff Johnson told The Stand, the Council’s daily online newspaper. Should the supermarket operators provoke a strike, “then the Council and our 400,000 members will do everything we can to support the grocery workers until a fair and just contract is signed,” Johnson stated.

At the other end of the country, UFCW Local 1500 is at loggerheads with two supermarket companies that employ about 10,000 union members in New York City, Long Island and the Hudson River Valley. The union contracts with regional chains Stop & Shop and King Cullen are due to expire Oct. 12, according to information posted on the union website.

Unlike Seattle Local 21's Geiger, who says Obamacare is being exploited by the grocery chains, Local 1500 President Bruce Both has explicitly blamed Obamacare for protracted and difficult negotiations. In a statement last month, Both explained the “Affordable Care Act is presenting tremendous and unprecedented challenges to these negotiations. The complexity of this 22,000 page law, combined with confusing interpretations of the law by various federal agencies, such as the Department of Labor, IRS and Treasury Department, has left union negotiators with no choice but to proceed slowly as we negotiate the legally required changes.”

“All our members wanted was what Congress promised them when this bill was passed: a law that would not require them to change their coverage or their doctors. They did not get that from this law. Regardless of what takes place in Washington, D.C., the leadership of UFCW Local 1500 is going to fight any effort by anyone to undermine the excellent union contracts our members have fought for and earned over these many years,” Both stated.

Although Both's statement did not emphasize the issue of part-time workers, labor sources indicate that Local 1500 is facing the same pressure to cut health insurance benefits that the Seattle local is experiencing. These pressures were foreshadowed earlier this year in New England, where a coalition of five UFCW locals struggled with a separate division of Stop & Shop over health care costs. In the New England contract settlement, UFCW ultimately agreed to shift some workers out of the existing labor-management health plan, but only if Stop & Shop ensured that the affected workers would have access to new insurance of similar quality.

The same issues have led to another stalemate between Stop & Shop/King Kullen and UFCW Local 342, which represents about 1,200 meat cutters, deli workers and seafood specialists at the two chains. Local 342 Vice President Lisa O’Leary told Working In These Times that any contract settlement will likely be linked to a final agreement covering Local 1500.

Strike talk in Seattle notwithstanding, large-scale job actions by unions in the grocery sector are extremely rare. Ten years ago, a Southern California strike by about 70,000 UFCW members (also against Safeway, Albertsons and Kroger) is widely considered to have been a disaster for the union. Like today, one of the main of contentions in the 2003-2004 strike was the cost of health insurance benefits.

UPDATE 10/15: According to Seattle's UFCW Local 21, four days of talks from October 10 to 13 produced progress, and negotiations are scheduled to resume on October 16. In New York, Local 1500 agreed with grocery operators Stop & Shop and King Kullen to extend the existing contract until November 2 while talks go forward. 

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA's Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper's New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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