Higher Compensation Sought for Grocery Workers

By Beacon Staff

HELENA (AP) – Several Democratic legislators joined union representatives Tuesday in pushing to improve pay and other compensation for workers at Safeway and Albertsons supermarkets in Montana.

The lawmakers and union staffers told reporters in the Safeway parking lot here that pay and insurance offers at the bargaining table are inadequate. Pressure to improve them must increase because Albertsons has made what it calls a final offer and it is unacceptable, said Nicolai Cocergine, president of United Food & Commercial Workers Local 4 headquartered in Butte.

How Albertsons employees fare affects their Safeway counterparts because statewide about 1,200 workers in the two chains are treated as one unit in labor negotiations, Cocergine said. He added that just over 98 percent of the workers who voted on the Albertsons proposal rejected it.

“There is no talk of a strike,” he said. “We’re trying to get the best deal we can for the workers at this time.”

Brian Dowling, a spokesman for Safeway from California, said the grocery chain is negotiating contracts with clerks and meat cutters.

“As far as we’re concerned, we intend to negotiate a contract that is fair to our employees and allows us to compete effectively in the future,” Dowling said. “Our intent is to continue to negotiate in good faith.”

Albertsons issued a prepared statement from spokeswoman Stephanie Martin, also based in California, who said the company is open to further bargaining.

“These contracts impact the lives of Albertsons’ associates across Montana, so we are committed to working toward a contract that balances the needs of our associates, our business and our customers,” Martin said.

Supermarket pay varies around the state and averages about $9 an hour for Safeway employees in Helena, Cocergine said. Employees at the two Albertsons stores here are not in the union, he said, but the company’s workers at many other locations in Montana have union representation.

A new labor agreement would cover union workers at about 10 Safeway stores and about 17 Albertsons stores around Montana, Cocergine said.

Other than pay raises given the recently hired as they settle into their jobs, pay boosts during the past five years or so have consisted only of bonuses paid about three times and mostly to journeyman workers at Safeway and Albertsons, Cocergine said. Because of employee turnover and the timing of those payments, many workers who deserved additional pay did not get the bonuses, he said.

Cocergine declined to discuss the details of wage proposals.

Union officials said corporate proposals for health insurance would make it impossible to maintain the level of benefits now available to employees.

The officials were joined at the news conference by legislative Democrats Bob Bergren of Havre, Dan Villa of Anaconda and Steve Gallus of Butte, plus Jim Farrell, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party.

Bergren said they participated, and about two dozen Democratic legislators wrote Safeway and Albertsons corporate offices, because fair compensation in the workplace is among the party’s core values.

“We all shop here,” said Gallus, gesturing toward Safeway. “We would like for the management to give these guys a raise.”

Cocergine said many of the supermarket employees are laboring under expired employment contracts, with some of the expirations dating to April 2006.

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