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    Grocer, Labor Talks Begin in Western Washington

    SEATTLE - The Puget Sound region's four largest supermarket chains and union officials on Thursday began the first of five bargaining sessions scheduled in the next two weeks, the Seattle Times reports.

    SEATTLE - The Puget Sound region's four largest supermarket chains and union officials on Thursday began the first of five bargaining sessions scheduled in the next two weeks, the Seattle Times reports.

    Health care will be a main topic of conversation, as it was in the recent Southern California strike, which lasted 18 weeks. Union officials have vowed to do whatever they can to protect workers' health-care benefits.

    "They (health benefits) are the main topic of conversation," said Sharon McCann, president of United Food and Commercial Workers local 1105 in Seattle, one of five locals representing some 25,000 grocery workers in Western Washington.

    Albertsons, Safeway and Kroger-owned chains QFC and Fred Meyer say they're optimistic they can avoid strikes. The companies have reached deals in recent weeks with workers in other parts of the country. The current contract expires May 2.

    Other grocers will negotiate separately with their unions. For example, contracts for workers at Haggen and Top Food and Drug stores also expire May 2, but no talks have been scheduled. Both sides are waiting for cues from the larger chains' talks.

    Talks are scheduled to resume Monday with specific contract proposals and will continue intermittently through April 30, according to the report.

    In a letter sent last week to Western Washington business and political leaders, executives from the four chains said they had settled similar contracts with the UFCW in the past two years in Oregon and Eastern Washington.

    "We recognize that it will take hard work at the negotiating table, but we remain optimistic that an agreement can be reached without a work stoppage," the companies wrote.

    UFCW officials have warned that they won't accept a carbon copy of the California settlement, in which a two-tier system was accepted.

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