Already facing pressure from union workers prepared to strike in Southern California, grocery retailers Albertsons Cos. and The Kroger Co. may be entering a similar situation in the Pacific Northwest.
Workers at Albertsons, Safeway, Fred Meyer and QFC stores in Portland., Ore., this week have voted nearly unanimously to authorize their union to call a strike. United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, based in Portland, said strike authorization votes are scheduled for additional regions across Oregon and southwest Washington in coming weeks. Albertsons and Safeway stores are owned by Albertsons Cos., and QFC and Fred Meyer brands are owned by Kroger.
The same two companies have been put on notice by workers in Southern California, where seven UFCW locals representing 60,000 Kroger/Ralphs and Albertsons/Vons workers voted late last month to authorize a strike. Similar to Portland, they characterized employers as unwilling to meet wage and benefit demands despite multiple bargaining sessions.
“The employers seem to be under the impression that our members will be thrilled with increases of nickels and dimes. I, along with our member-comprised bargaining team, believe our hard-working members deserve much, much more,” Dan Clay, UFCW Local 555 president, said in a statement. “A strike vote identifies where our membership stands on this issue. We are demonstrating that we stand together, united and very ready to fight as hard as we must for what we deserve.”
Union retailers say increased competition from companies with lower cost structures, as well as rising wage and benefit expenses, have pressured them to seek more competitive contracts. At Ahold Delhaize’s Stop & Shop stores in New England, those demands triggered an 11-day walkout by workers this spring, one of the most expensive labor disputes in the industry since a four-month strike-lockout affecting Southern California workers in 2003 and 2004.
Speaking in a conference call late last month, Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen said the chain’s financial results “continue to be pressured by inefficient healthcare and pension costs, which some of our competitors do not face. We continue to communicate with our local unions and international unions which represent many of our associates on the importance of growing our business in a profitable way, which will help us create more jobs and career opportunities and enhance job security for our associates.”
In its most recent quarter, Kroger reached new contract agreements with union workers in Denver, Louisville, Ky., and Indianapolis. Negotiations are ongoing in Las Vegas, Memphis, Portland, Seattle and Southern California. “Our objective in every negotiation is to find a fair and reasonable balance between competitive costs and compensation packages that provide solid wages, good quality, affordable healthcare and retirement benefits for our associates,” Kroger Chief Financial Officer Gary Millerchip said.
Past contract agreements introducing wage tiers for full- and part-time workers is contributing to what UFCW Local 555 called a “massive gap in pay equity between men and women at Fred Meyer stores.” According to the union, the most common difference in hourly compensation between those tiers is $3.70 an hour and that Fred Meyer’s data demonstrates women make up the majority of those lower-paid positions.