The supermarket strikes that have plagued Southern California soon could be replayed in the Valley.
Contracts for about 15,000 Safeway and Fry’s workers in Arizona expire after midnight Oct. 26.
At issue are health care premiums and coverage, shoring up the pension pot and a pay raise. A couple of preliminary sessions have been held, but talks to forge a new contract and avert a walkout start in earnest Monday.
"The meetings are not going well," said Mike Vespoli, spokesman for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 99.
Vespoli said the union is gearing up for a walkout but hoping the preparations prove unnecessary.
Even if Saturday night’s deadline nears without an agreement, the union would stay at the table if there is headway, Vespoli said.
Progress in California, where workers are striking Albertson’s, Safeway sibling Vons and Fry’s sibling Ralph’s, also would be a good sign, Vespoli said, since the California union is fighting over the same general issues and using the same negotiating teams as Arizona. In Arizona, only Fry’s and Safeway workers are unionized. Albertson’s and Bashas’ are not, and those stores wouldn’t be affected by union actions.
The supermarkets want union workers, who currently don’t pay any premiums for health care coverage, to pay part of the monthly cost, said Jim Nygren, Fry’s spokesman. The supermarkets also want to limit eligibility to those who work at least 130 hours a month, instead of the 80 hours that now qualify parttimers for full health care coverage.
Nygren said the supermarkets can’t compete with the non-unionized grocery sellers without cutting some expenses.
"No one can continue to absorb the spiraling cost of health care," Nygren said.
Pension funds also have shrunk because of the sagging stock market.
Nygren said that is a national problem that has touched companies in all industries.
Vespoli agreed the economy is to blame, but the union is asking the grocery chains to infuse enough money now to bring the pension funds’ capacity up to pre-recession levels.