Fry’s and Safeway executives and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 99 finally carved out time to get together Friday.
The two sides had not met since Oct. 24, when they agreed to extend indefinitely the contract for 15,000 Arizona supermarket workers, which was due to expire two days later.
The extension was aimed at averting a strike similar to the ongoing conflict that has had 70,000 Southern California workers walking picket lines for four weeks with no end in sight.
In Arizona, the two sides have set aside time to continue meeting on Monday and Tuesday. But either side can scrap the extension with seven days' notice.
There are several points of contention, said union spokesman Mike Vespoli. But the top three issues in Arizona are health care benefits, pensions and a raise in pay — in that order, he said.
“Wage is the least of our concerns right now,” Vespoli said. “We have serious problems in this country with health care.”
Vespoli said the union is worried that if management ups the minimum number of hours per month that an employee must work to qualify for coverage and drops the minimum number of hours per month an employee is guaranteed work, two-thirds of existing Arizona Fry’s and Safeway workers will lose coverage.
The supermarkets also want full-time employees to pay a portion of the weekly premiums for coverage — an amount that is expected to add up to $15 per week and could go higher in future years, Vespoli said.
Supermarket executives have said they need to trim expenses to fend off nonunionized competition.
In Arizona, that includes Albertson’s, Bashas’, independent supermarkets, Wal-Mart Supercenters and niche grocers.
The issues in the Arizona negotiations are similar to those that led to the Southern California strike.
But Fry’s spokesman Jim Nygren said there also are a lot of differences in the talking points and the environment in the two states.
“There is no reason to see (California strikes) as a stumbling block,” Nygren said. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be meeting today.”