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Fred Meyer warehouse workers in Pacific NW prepare for strike

Safeway reaches tentative deal with drivers and warehouse employees, averts disruption

A Fred Meyer store in Tigard, Oregon. The supermarket chain could see some bare shelves if a planned strike by warehouse workers begins. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Grocery distribution to Fred Meyer stores in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska could be disrupted starting Sunday if unionized warehouse workers vote to strike after talks on a new contract broke down. 

Meanwhile, spokespersons said representatives for the Teamsters union reached a tentative agreement with Safeway on a new labor deal for truck drivers and warehouse workers shortly after midnight Friday, likely ensuring that about 200 stores in the region will continue to receive deliveries without interruption.

Contracts with both groups of workers are set to expire this weekend. 

More than 1,000 workers are demanding increases in compensation and better safety protections after working on the front lines of the COVID pandemic for 16 months to maintain supplies of food and other household goods under difficult circumstances.

Local 117 spokesperson Paul Zilly said a vote to ratify the Safeway deal recommended by leadership will take place on Sunday. Results of the vote will be known at 6:30 p.m. Pacific Standard Time. Local 117 represents about 500 warehouse workers at the Fred Meyer distribution center in Puyallup, Washington, and about 460 employees at Safeway’s warehouse in Auburn. Both locations are near Tacoma. 

Workers will vote on a work stoppage at Fred Meyer, part of the Kroger (NYSE: KR) empire, on Saturday. Zilly said he expected a near-unanimous vote to authorize a strike. A shutdown would impact about 180 Fred Meyer outlets in Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Idaho, as well as delivery of some nutrition products to California. 

The Safeway DC services about 187 Safeway stores and 15 Haggen natural outlets in Washington and Alaska. 

Local 174, the bargaining unit for about 175 big rig drivers who transport groceries from the Auburn facility to stores throughout the state, will vote Saturday to ratify the contract with Safeway, spokesperson Jamie Fleming said.

Drivers are compensated by a complicated activity-based formula that essentially pays them by the task.

Union officials provided few specifics about the issues being negotiated, but said their members wanted to be shown respect after putting themselves at risk to keep the food distribution system going when COVID restricted people from shopping or working in close proximity. 

“Our members in the grocery warehouse industry have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to make sure grocery shelves in communities across the Pacific Northwest are stocked with food and supplies,” said John Scearcy, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 117, in a statement Thursday before reaching the agreement with Safeway. “They’ve put themselves and their families’ safety at risk to feed Washington families despite major COVID-19 outbreaks in the workplace. It’s inexcusable that both Safeway and Fred Meyer, companies that have seen soaring profits over the last year, are unwilling to recognize the indispensable contributions these essential workers have made for all of us.”

On Friday, Searcy said, “We are happy to see that Safeway put forth a fair contract proposal that our members will be voting on this weekend. Unfortunately, Fred Meyer has yet to demonstrate the same recognition of the indispensable contributions these essential workers have made for all of us.”

Safeway owner Albertsons (NYSE: ACI) achieved record results for the fiscal year ended Feb. 27, with net sales up 11.6% to $69.7 billion year-over-year and gross profit rising 16% to $20.4 billion. Kroger has raised its guidance for earnings to be about 10% higher than in 2019 for the full year.

“As with all our collectively bargained agreements, we are committed to reaching a fair agreement that properly rewards our outstanding employees,” Albertsons spokesperson Kirby Nardo said in an email. Kroger did not respond to inquiries about the contract.

Safety issues were a big priority for the workers, especially for Fred Meyer because it suspended regular safety meetings at the start of the pandemic, Zilly said.

The union proposal to both companies would allow members, if they deem something as unsafe, to refuse a work assignment without the risk of discipline until the matter has been evaluated by management, he said. Safety concerns could apply to work procedures, equipment, COVID protocols or even to whether truck trailers are properly loaded, which could affect public safety. 

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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]