Strike vote looms for Safeway workers

Health care premiums are at heart of fight between union, grocery chains

Craig Safeway employee Sabrina Boughan, 20, said she depends on health care benefits to supplement an hourly wage of a little more than $6 an hour.

But contract talks between the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, of which almost all of Craig Safeway's 45 employees are members, and the Front Range grocery chains of Albertson's, King Soopers and Safeway may change pay and benefits for local employees such as Boughan.

"If they want to take more money out to pay for benefits it will be difficult," she said. "One of the only reasons I work here is because of the benefits. If they take those away, I may as well work somewhere else."

Craig City Market employees are not represented by the union. The Craig store is a division of King Soopers, which is a division of Kroger.

The three grocery store companies are negotiating separately with the union, but are coordinating their contracts.

Grocers say they can't compete with health care coverage for employees that was negotiated under previous contracts.

Front Range employee contracts recently were extended six weeks to Oct. 16 from their initial Saturday cutoff date. Employees there also voted to authorize the union to hold a strike if both sides couldn't settle.

The stores' most recent offer requires workers to contribute $5 to $15 a week toward health care (something employees don't do); new employees would be paid on a lower wage scale and wouldn't receive the same pay bonuses of current employees.

But Craig's Safeway employees may have to wait out the negotiations to determine what action to take next, said Josh Wright, a UFCW7 steward for Craig's Safeway.

He said the Craig store and its union employees probably will negotiate separately alongside their Western Slope sister stores in Steamboat Springs and Glenwood, depending on the outcome of talks on the Front Range.

Within the next couple of weeks, Craig Safeway employees will be asked to vote whether to approve authorization to the union to strike.

It will be decided by a two-thirds vote; but Wright said it is important that members approve it, if only to allow the union more bargaining power.

"I'm encouraging everybody to show up for the strike vote," he said.

A Craig Safeway employee of five years who asked to remain anonymous said he was concerned about pending negotiations and the potential a strike would have on his finances.

"I just bought a house," he said. "Nobody wants to lose their income for that long."

He also wondered how he could find another job without much education.

"I think it's real scary for somebody like me," he said. "I'm not prepared to go into another job. It could be six months without a job (if employees go on strike).

"None of us know how long it's going to be."

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