In his latest Telephonic Town Hall with members of UFCW Local 99, President Jim McLaughlin provided a sobering update on contract negotiations with Fry’s, Safeway and Smith’s.

President McLaughlin began the Nov. 25 call by noting that “the next four to six weeks will be extremely busy in the stores.” He asked union members to be extra diligent at work and at home during a time when thousands of COVID infections are being reported in Arizona.

“A couple thousand of our members have been infected and unfortunately some have passed away,” McLaughlin said.

“We must keep encouraging everyone to wash their hands and wear their masks. And if you think you might be infected, don’t come in to work. Call management and advise them of your symptoms in order to protect your coworkers.”

Negotiations update

“Over the last two days, we had scheduled with Fry’s, Safeway and Smith’s an opportunity to try to move these negotiations on,” McLaughlin said.

“Early on in the process on Monday, we decided that we were probably able to make more progress quicker if we went into some ‘off the record’ discussions. This typically means you’re able to be frank, you’re sharing ideas, you’re not putting out proposals that lock in certain positions, you’re just trying to find where the areas of common agreement are.

“I will tell you that after two days I don’t think there are areas to find common agreement,” he said.

“We were hopeful, and the union made several gestures of where we were willing to go, but unfortunately the employers kept going back to places where we were just not able to go.

“We’re still on extension and the contract could expire when either party give seven days’ notice,” McLaughlin continued. “We notified them yesterday we will not have further ‘off the record’ discussions and we will return to formal bargaining.”

President McLaughlin said proposals from the companies and the union are available on the union’s website.

“One proposal would essentially devastate our health care,” he said. “It would probably cause at least half of our members to lose their health care. It would raise employee premiums, nearly tripling them over three years, and it would take upwards of a hundred million dollars out of our health care plan reserves.”

The employers are offering a top rate only increase of 25 cents per hour, with no changes proposed for progressions, he said. With minimum wage increases of nearly four dollars an hour over the last 4 years, this puts a lot of pressure on wages for experienced members, “causing a huge compression  of the wage rates there, with raises very rare and very small,” he said.

McLaughlin said the employers show no willingness to reinstate hazard/appreciation pay while “the stores are full of customers, they’re running out of product on the shelves, COVID numbers are higher than they ever have been, and our members continue to be exposed.”

He said the union is running full-page ads in The Arizona Republic carrying the message that “our members’ health care protects customers too, because it keeps us from spreading [COVID-19] to customers.”

“We’ll continue to drive that point home,” he said, referring to additional ad purchases during college football games, on news channels and on digital media. These ads will be viewable on the union’s website.

McLaughlin said, “We’re looking at ads in the three weeks going into Christmas and New Year that will be harder hitting if we don’t make progress in negotiations by then.”

One reason for the slow pace, he said, is that bargaining via video conference makes it difficult to “read the room.”

“Our goals remain the same,” he said. “We want a fair and equitable contract that preserves our health care, improves benefits where we can, provides a good wage that rewards our members for what they do, and provides a safe and secure pension and safe and secure employment.”

The union will meet with Safeway next week for some “non-economic bargaining,” McLaughlin said.

He encouraged members to continue checking the union website for updates. They also can ask questions to union representatives and advisory committee members at the stores.

President McLaughlin concluded the call by wishing “a happy Thanksgiving to all.”

“Many of you will be working, but stop when you can to be thankful,” he said. “And if any members need extra help to get through the stress of the holidays, they can contact EMAP.”

“Thank you for everything,” he said.

“Stay strong, stay safe, and stay united.”