Behind the latest breakdown in talks between grocery workers and Safeway

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On October 20, negotiators for grocery workers and Safeway, one of three giant chains whose contracts with union employees in Colorado have expired, sat down for the first time in ages to try and hammer out an agreement. But very little hammering actually took place.

"The workers said, 'Here's our proposal,' and Safeway took it and went off to talk to their people in Oakland," says Laura Chapin, spokeswoman for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, referring to the firm's headquarters in Pleasanton, California. "Then they came back and said, 'Thanks, but we've got nothing new,' and that was pretty much it."

Back to square one? In Chapin's view, the situation has actually moved into negative territory.

"The proposal they're giving now is actually worse than they early offer they gave us last winter," Chapin argues. "The other day, one of our people said, 'We keep making our offer better, and theirs keeps getting worse.' We've made eight to ten serious moves since this started."

Here's how Chapin describes the gaps between the two sides, first as they apply to pay:

"We're still trying to work with the graduated proposal on wages. Safeway only wants to give wage increases to people at the journeymen level, which works out to people with about fifteen-years experience, whereas we want an incremental, across-the-board increase. And they're trying to retain the two-tier system. Anybody hired after March 2005 makes a dollar an hour less for the exact same job. And the workers are saying there should be equal pay for equal work."

Pensions are an area of dispute, too:

"One of the main things is moving the goalpost on the retirement age. A lot of grocery workers start working as teenagers, and traditionally when your age and your years of experience add up to eighty, you can retire and start collecting your pension. For example, if you're fifty and you started at age twenty, that would add up to eighty. But the company wants to move that back five years. And they also want to eliminate a $200 a month supplemental for people between the ages of sixty and 62, and to eliminate disability payments and reduce future accrual rates to zero. And already, the second-tier workers don't accrue pension benefits at all, and they don't accrue sick leave, either."

The cut-off of Safeway talks is echoed by the radio silence regarding the other two chains. "We haven't really had anything with Albertsons since May," Chapin notes, "and with King Soopers, we asked them for dates as well, and they said, 'We'll get back to you on that' -- and apparently, the check's still in the mail."

What's next? "Our preference, by far, is to work this out at the negotiating table, but they don't seem willing to meet us halfway," she says. "So now, once we finalize the sanction from the international, we'll see what the company does when they're actually faced with workers willing to go on strike over wages and pensions."

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