Thousands of union workers across Arizona are poised to go on strike Friday after months of failed negotiations with two major grocery chains.
The union gave grocery giants Safeway Inc. and Fry's, owned by Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., until 6 p.m. Friday to come up with a new contract offer. The stores have been hiring thousands of temporary workers eager for jobs amid the nation's economic meltdown, and they're defending the contract they offered employees, making a strike more probable by the hour.
The stakes for about 25,000 workers and their employers are high.
If they strike, union members would get just $100 a week in strike pay. And with Arizona among the nation's most competitive grocery regions, the companies could lose coveted market share if they don't settle.
Arizona is a right-to-work state, meaning workers can cross picket lines. The companies also could decide to lock out all their employees, and nonunion members would not get any income if that happens.
Ellen Anreder, spokeswoman for Food and Commercial Workers union Local 99, said the biggest sticking point in the companies' contract offer is a health care fee for new employees.
The $5-$15 weekly fee, depending on how many family members are covered, would amount to nearly $800 a year for some workers.
"That's just too much of a hardship for people earning $13,000 or $14,000 a year," Anreder said.
The workers also want a pay increase, but Anreder said that's not asking too much considering most employees haven't received a raise in the last nine years. She said the average worker earns $15,000 to $20,000 a year.
"No one ever got rich working in a supermarket," she said. "We just want to feed our families."
Safeway spokeswoman Cathy Kloos called the contract offer fair and reasonable and added that the Pleasanton, Calif.-based company doesn't want to lose any customers or employees over a strike.
"No one benefits from a strike," Kloos said. "We are not looking forward to it but we're taking all the necessary precautions in the event it does happen."
She said the company has hired 2,500 temporary workers and is bringing in managers from outside the state. Asked whether that would be enough to run the chain's 116 Arizona stores, she said, "We hope."
Fry's spokeswoman JoEllen Lynn said her company, which has 120 stores in Arizona, has hired 6,100 temporary workers and is flying in 700 Kroger employees from outside the state.
"We feel that we're going to continue to have the great products and service that people are used to," she said. "We are ready and we're working night and day to make sure that happens."
She said many nonunion Fry's workers are upset about the strike. "Many of them have worked together for decades, so they're family members," she said.
The union could choose to strike both grocery chains or decide to target one of them in hopes of using one company against the other.
The companies came to an agreement Tuesday that if workers strike just one of them, the other will lock out its hourly workers.
Anreder called the agreement a "blood pact."
"These are bitter adversaries," she said. "In any other situation, they would be aggressive if not downright hostile to one another."
The previous five-year contract between the union and the companies expired in October 2008, and employees have worked under a series of extensions, the last of which expired Oct. 31 of this year.
The companies issued new proposals in September, which the union said its members overwhelmingly rejected. Members also voted to give union leaders the authority to strike against one or both of the companies.
Citing unsatisfactory progress, the union set the Friday deadline for a new offer.
Tim James, an economics professor at Arizona State University, said neither side will benefit from a strike and both eventually will have to compromise.
"From the point of view of the stores, it's a horrible time for people to be going off on strike _ everyone's struggling for business," he said. "From the point of view of strikers, I imagine a large portion of the population is not going to have a great deal of sympathy when so many people are actually looking for a job."
The big question, James said, is how long a strike would last.
"If it lasts six months, then it could kill one of these two entities in Arizona," he said.
On the Net:
Safeway Inc.: http://www.safeway.com
The Kroger Co.: http://www.kroger.com
United Food and Commercial Workers International: http://www.ufcw.org