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How imminent is a grocery-workers strike after latest contract rejection?

Yesterday, the last votes by unionized Safeway workers were counted, and once again, they turned thumbs-down on a contract that struck plenty of employees as extremely familiar. According to United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 spokeswoman Laura Chapin, "The most recent offer is virtually the same one they've been making for five months, and virtually the same one workers rejected in June, because it cuts pensions and freezes wages."

Does this verdict move the UFCW closer to an already-authorized strike? Chapin can't make any guarantees one way or the other, but she feels a number of cards remain to be played.

"There's one tweak people need to be aware of: They have not made a last, best and fnal offer," Chapin says. "They've made what they call a 'final' offer, but not a 'last, best and final.'"

To the layman, this may sound like an exercise in wishful thinking. But when it comes to contract negotiations, such distinctions in terminology have meaning -- except when they don't. "Back in, I think, 1993, there were something like six 'last, best and final' offers," Chapin concedes. For that reason, she believes "this is very much a negotiating process -- and the offer from the workers is still there: 'Please come back to the table and provide an offer that's more fair.'"

The current economy seems to make a strike less likely -- and it explains in part why many people interviewed for a recent Denver Post piece wouldn't pledge to change their shopping habits even if picket lines form. After all, workers from every walk of life have had to make do with less lately. Why should grocery workers be an exception to that rule?

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In Chapin's view, the Post article didn't reflect the responses she's seen. "There are a lot of people who support grocery workers, including members of the faith community," she says. "And workers in stores, like checkers who may have been there for ten, twenty, thirty years, their customers are telling them, 'If there's a strike, we won't shop here.'"

As for the reasons why Safeway and King Soopers need to pony up, Chapin puts them in familiar exploited-worker terms. "These stores are making lots of money, and they're making money because of the workers who are there, and who've been there for years, and have contributed to the bottom line of profit. And what the workers are asking for is pretty minimal: the pensions they've already been promised and wages that'll actually provide them with a way to support their families and allow them to be a part of the economy." When it comes to salaries, for example, the UFCW wants a three-year pact in which employees at the journeymen rate earn 70 cents more per hour the first year and 35 cents additional each of the next two, with workers at other pay grades seeing increases of roughly the same proportion.

"The workers have made a number of counter-offers," Chapin goes on, "and the companies keep rejecting them and making the same offer over and over again. And, to paraphrase Einstein, they can't keep presenting the same bad offer and expect a different result."

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