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SAN FRANCISCO - Safeway and Albertson's on Tuesday offered their 28,000 unionized workers in Northern California a contract that includes a proposed wage increase the union has said for several months is unacceptable. The union said a strike is very probable as early as Oct. 8.
The offer contains wage increases of 50 cents per hour per year for three years for most employees, identical to the raises in a contract ratified by Safeway and Albertson's workers in the Sacramento Valley in July.
The union mantra has been that the wage is insufficient for its members living in more costly regions, particularly the Bay Area, but the grocery chains say the wage increase is generous.
"We believe the offer includes the best package of wage and benefit increases in the history of at least our company, Albertson's. Our Bay Area associates will be our highest paid retail store associates anywhere in the country," said Steven Young, executive vice president of the Boise, Idaho, food and drug retailer, which operates in 36 states.
Under the proposal, the salary for a journeyman food clerk would increase from $17.58 to $19.08 per hour during the three-year life of the contract.
"We recognize the Bay Area is a high-cost area and that is why we already are paying beyond competitive wages in the marketplace now," David Bowlby, director of public affairs for Safeway's Northern California Division, said yesterday at a news conference with Young at the Oakland Marriott.
"Our employees are the highest-paid retail employees in the Bay Area and make almost double what nonunion employees make," he said.
The companies said they would increase pension benefits to $1,900 per month for 30-year employees.
But the company spokesman did not tell reporters that the offer also proposes that the chains suspend contributions to the pension fund for three years. This language, said Joe Peterson, a negotiator and an official in the union's collective bargaining department, is as much a deal-killer as the wage offer.
"We think that puts the pension plan at risk and effectively gives them $350 million in found money," said Peterson. "It would give them an advantage over other retailers who are not using employee pension plans to fund their success," he said.
The eight locals of the United Food and Commercial Workers, in 300 Safeway and Albertsons stores in the region, will hold meetings through Oct. 7 and vote on the offer. The union said a strike would commence Oct. 8 if approved by a two-thirds majority.
The chains, meanwhile, say they would continue to operate with replacement workers. They said in a statement yesterday that the proposal is the "last, best and final offer" and "will not be improved, even in the event of a prolonged strike."
"In the event of a labor dispute, or in the event of no labor dispute, our stores will remain open, and or customers can feel very comfortable coming in to meet their shopping needs," Safeway's Bowlby said.