Grocery store workers and supporters hold a rally for better healthcare benefits. (AP Photo/Bret Hartman)
Thousands of members of the United Food and Commercial Workers from popular chains such as QFC, Albertsons, Safeway and Fred Meyer cast ballots at the Lynnwood Convention Center in Washington this week. If passed, the measure would allow negotiators to take union members on strike if future negotiations break down.
According to workers, who have been in contract negotiations since March, the four major issues at stake are healthcare benefits, pay for holiday work, paid sick leave and obtaining living wages.
“I think our members are resolute,” Local 367 Secretary-Treasurer Daniel Comeau told the News Tribune. “They know that sometimes they have to take stands.”
The grocery stores are negotiating under the banner of Allied Employers. Union representatives have expressed frustration with what they call “take-backs,” which include harmful measures like an end to time-and-one-half on holidays and no offer of a permanent pay raise. However, the main concern is healthcare and the impact of the Affordable Care Act.
Stores have proposed that workers who work fewer than thirty hours a week get their health insurance from government insurance exchanges under healthcare reform, and to no longer be on the insurance plan now jointly managed by the unions and the companies, King 5 News reports.
The threshold for health coverage for nonunion competitors is thirty hours per week under the ACA.
“We don’t want to be in a position where we’re stuck covering part-time employees and our competitors don’t have to cover them,” said Scott Powers of Allied Employers, which represents the grocery companies, to Kiro TV.
Naturally, workers are distressed by the idea of losing their health coverage.
“It will be terrible, a lot of people are working just to get their health benefits,” said Safeway worker Ariana Davis.
Nationwide, employers are cutting workers’ hours to keep them beneath the thirty mark so they can push employees onto the ACA rolls and avoid penalties.
Gene Barr of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry has heard anecdotally that Midstate employers are trimming workers or trimming their hours as fallout of the ACA:
Government has decided that you as a business will pay this if you meet a certain size,” Barr explained. “They’ve put these conditions on and of course companies will have to work around and with those conditions in order to make sure they can stay as a successful business. Businesses have to take the steps they can to keep themselves profitable and keep the people that are now employed, employed.”
Major businesses such as Walmart have found all kinds of creative ways to circumvent the thirty mark. For example, a Reuters surgery of fifty-two Walmart stores in June found that most were hiring only temps, who must re-apply for their jobs after 180 days. Meanwhile, existing long-term employees have seen their hours reduced drastically.
These are all ways to keep employees beneath the thirty hours per week necessary to acquire benefits, and employers are banking on being able to unload these employees onto the ACA.
According to UFCW, if grocery store workers do vote to strike, the action could include some 30,000 grocery workers across Western Washington, represented by UFCW Local 367 in Pierce County, UCFW Local 21 in King County and Teamsters Local 38 in Snohomish County.
Although Allied Employers represents each grocery store individually, and union employees at Safeway received slightly different proposals than employees at Fred Meyer, Comeau called all of the proposals “equally bad.”
The union has scheduled votes for late September, but doesn’t know yet if those will be votes on contract proposals or strike authorization.
A grocery strike was narrowly averted around Thanksgiving 2012 by a last-minute contract agreement.
Laura Flanders covered the historic changes within the labor movement earlier this week.