Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler joined union workers picketing a Bowie Safeway Tuesday to pressure the grocery giant to concede on the health benefits that are tying up contract negotiations.
"This all about awareness," Gansler, who is running for governor, said during a break in convincing shoppers to sign a petition.
Gansler accused Safeway and Giant, which negotiate with the same union, of trying to use provisions of the new federal health law "to take away" health coverage.
"Companies are using the Affordable Care Act to undermine health care," Gansler said.
The United Food and Commerical Workers Local 400, which represents unionized grocery workers Maryland's D.C. suburbs, Washington and northern Virginia, has objected to how Safeway and Giant have dealt with escalating health care costs and the impact of the Affordable Care Act on employers.
Union officials said the grocers want to increase how much employees pay for health benefits. Long-time employees contribute nothing to the cost of their premiums, and newer employees pay between $5 and $15 per week for coverage, a union leader said.
As the company neogiates over health care costs, the union has staged flash mobs and other picketing demonstrations, primarily in Prince George's County. According to the union, a contract that expired at the end of October has been extended a second time to a new Dec. 20 negotiating deadline.
Boaz Young-El, a political representative with UFCW Local 400, said the union reached out to Gansler in hopes the political pressure would gain them leverage.
"Like it or not, sometimes we need the help of the political arena to help garner a good contract," Young-El said.
After Gansler and his running mate Del. Jolene Ivey stood in 35-degree weather to urge shoppers to sign a petition, Gansler hand-delivered them to the store's manager, Rich Lewis, and told him "We want to make sure you're negotiating in good faith."
Late Tuesday afternoon, Safeway released a statement that said the company will not comment on labor negotiations, but said generally that "the bargaining teams are dealing with very complex issues, and Safeway is committed to attempting to address the concerns of the unions while also finding ways for the company to mitigate the cost advantage of non-union retailers, who in recent years have entered the region and taken market share from traditional grocers like Safeway."